Capture of Prey, Feeding, and Functional Anatomy of the Jaws in Velvet Worms (Onychophora)


Onychophorans are carnivorous, terrestrial invertebrates that occur in tropical and temperate forests of the Southern Hemisphere and around the Equator. Together with tardigrades, onychophorans are regarded as one of the closest relatives of arthropods. One of the most peculiar features of onychophorans is their hunting and feeding behavior. These animals secrete a sticky slime, which is ejected via a pair of slime-papillae, to entangle the prey. After the prey has been immobilized, its cuticle is punctured using a pair of jaws located within the mouth. These jaws constitute internalized appendages of the second body segment and are innervated by the deutocerebrum; thus, they are homologous to the chelicerae of chelicerates, and to the (first) antennae of myriapods, crustaceans, and insects. The jaws are also serial homologs of the paired claws associated with each walking limb of the trunk. The structure of the jaws is similar in representatives of the two major onychophoran subgroups, the Peripatidae and Peripatopsidae. Each jaw is characterized by an outer and an inner blade; while the outer blade consists only of a large principal tooth and up to three accessory teeth, the inner blade bears numerous additional denticles. These denticles are separated from the remaining part of the inner jaw by a diastema and a soft membrane only in peripatids. The onychophoran jaws are associated with large apodemes and specialized muscles that enable their movement. In contrast to the mandibles of arthropods, the onychophoran jaws are moved along, rather than perpendicular to, the main axis of the body. Our elemental analysis reveals an increased incorporation of calcium at the tip of each blade, which might provide rigidity, whereas there is no evidence for incorporation of metal or prominent mineralization. Stability of the jaw might be further facilitated by the cone-in-cone organization of its cuticle, as each blade consists of several stacked, cuticular elements. In this work, we summarize current knowledge on the jaws of onychophorans, which are a characteristic feature of these animals.
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