Arthropods are invertebrates with segmented bodies and jointed limbs. The limbs form part of an exoskeleton, which is mainly made of α-chitin, a derivative of glucose. One other group of animals, the tetrapods, has jointed limbs, but tetrapods are vertebrates and therefore have endoskeletons. DiversityOne estimate indicates that arthropods have 1,170,000 described species, and account for over 80% of all known living animal species. Another study estimates that there are between 5 to 10 million extant arthropod species, both described and yet to be described. Estimating the total number of living species is extremely difficult because it often depends on a series of assumptions in order to scale up from counts at specific locations to estimates for the whole world. A study in 1992 estimated that there were 500,000 species of animals and plants in Costa Rica alone, of which 365,000 were arthropods. Arthropods are one of the most ubiquitous groups of multicellular organisms found in the biosphere.They are important members of marine, freshwater, land and air ecosystems, and are one of only two major animal groups that have adapted to life in dry environments; the other is amniotes, whose living members are reptiles, birds and mammals.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 518–522 One arthropod sub-group, insects, is the most species-rich member of all ecological guilds in land and fresh-water environments. The lightest insects weigh less than 25 micrograms (millionths of a gram), while the heaviest weigh over . Some living crustaceans are much larger; for example, the legs of the Japanese spider crab may span up to .
The embryos of all arthropods are segmented, built from a series of repeated modules. The last common ancestor of living arthropods probably consisted of a series of undifferentiated segments, each with a pair of appendages that functioned as limbs. However all known living and fossil arthropods have grouped segments into tagmata in which segments and their limbs are specialized in various ways; The three-part appearance of many insect bodies and the two-part appearance of spiders is a result of this grouping;Gould (1990), pp. 102–106 in fact there are no external signs of segmentation in mites. Arthropods also have two body elements that are not part of this serially repeated pattern of segments, an acron at the front, ahead of the mouth, and a telson at the rear, behind the anus. The eyes are mounted on the acron.The original structure of arthropod appendages was probably biramous, with the upper branch acting as a gill while the lower branch was used for walking. In some segments of all known arthropods the appendages have been modified, for example to form gills, mouth-parts, antennae for collecting information, or claws for grasping; arthropods are "like Swiss Army knives, each equipped with a unique set of specialized tools." In many arthropods, appendages have vanished from some regions of the body, and it is particularly common for abdominal appendages to have disappeared or be highly modified. The most conspicuous specialization of segments is in the head. The four major groups of arthropods – Chelicerata (includes spiders and scorpions), Crustacea (shrimps, lobsters, crabs, etc.), Tracheata (arthropods that breathe via channels into their bodies; includes insects and myriapods), and the extinct trilobites – have heads formed of various combinations of segments, with appendages that are missing or specialized in different ways. In addition some extinct arthropods, such as Marrella, belong to none of these groups, as their heads are formed by their own particular combinations of segments and specialized appendages.Summarised in Gould (1990), pp. 107–121. Working out the evolutionary stages by which all these different combinations could have appeared is so difficult that it has long been known as "the arthropod head problem". In 1960 R. E. Snodgrass even hoped it would not be solved, as trying to work out solutions was so much fun."It would be too bad if the question of head segmentation ever should be finally settled; it has been for so long such fertile ground for theorizing that arthropodists would miss it as a field for mental exercise."
Arthropod exoskeletons are made of cuticle, a non-cellular material secreted by the epidermis. Their cuticles vary in the details of their structure, but generally consist of three main layers: the epicuticle, a thin outer waxy coat that moisture-proofs the other layers and gives them some protection; the exocuticle, which consists of chitin and chemically hardened proteins; and the endocuticle, which consists of chitin and unhardened proteins. The exocuticle and endocuticle together are known as the procuticle. Each body segment and limb section is encased in hardened cuticle. The joints between body segments and between limb sections are covered by flexible cuticle.The exoskeletons of most aquatic crustaceans are biomineralized with calcium carbonate extracted from the water. Some terrestrial crustaceans have developed means of storing the mineral, since on land they cannot rely on a steady supply of dissolved calcium carbonate. Biomineralization generally affects the exocuticle and the outer part of the endocuticle. Two recent hypotheses about the evolution of biomineralization in arthropods and other groups of animals propose that it provides tougher defensive armor, and that it allows animals to grow larger and stronger by providing more rigid skeletons; and in either case a mineral-organic composite exoskeleton is cheaper to build than an all-organic one of comparable strength.The cuticle may have setae (bristles) growing from special cells in the epidermis. Setae are as varied in form and function as appendages. For example, they are often used as sensors to detect air or water currents, or contact with objects; aquatic arthropods use feather-like setae to increase the surface area of swimming appendages and to filter food particles out of water; aquatic insects, which are air-breathers, use thick felt-like coats of setae to trap air, extending the time they can spend under water; heavy, rigid setae serve as defensive spines.Although all arthropods use muscles attached to the inside of the exoskeleton to flex their limbs, some still use hydraulic pressure to extend them, a system inherited from their pre-arthropod ancestors; for example, all spiders extend their legs hydraulically and can generate pressures up to eight times their resting level. Moulting The exoskeleton cannot stretch and thus restricts growth. Arthropods therefore replace their exoskeletons by moulting, or shedding the old exoskeleton after growing a new one that is not yet hardened. Moulting cycles run nearly continuously until an arthropod reaches full size.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 523–524In the initial phase of moulting, the animal stops feeding and its epidermis releases moulting fluid, a mixture of enzymes that digests the endocuticle and thus detaches the old cuticle. This phase begins when the epidermis has secreted a new epicuticle to protect it from the enzymes, and the epidermis secretes the new exocuticle while the old cuticle is detaching. When this stage is complete, the animal makes its body swell by taking in a large quantity of water or air, and this makes the old cuticle split along predefined weaknesses where the old exocuticle was thinnest. It commonly takes several minutes for the animal to struggle out of the old cuticle. At this point the new one is wrinkled and so soft that the animal cannot support itself and finds it very difficult to move, and the new endocuticle has not yet formed. The animal continues to pump itself up to stretch the new cuticle as much as possible, then hardens the new exocuticle and eliminates the excess air or water. By the end of this phase the new endocuticle has formed. Many arthropods then eat the discarded cuticle to reclaim its materials.Because arthropods are unprotected and nearly immobilized until the new cuticle has hardened, they are in danger both of being trapped in the old cuticle and of being attacked by predators. Moulting may be responsible for 80 to 90% of all arthropod deaths. Internal organs Arthropod bodies are also segmented internally, and the nervous, muscular, circulatory, and excretory systems have repeated components. Arthropods come from a lineage of animals that have a coelom, a membrane-lined cavity between the gut and the body wall that accommodates the internal organs. The strong, segmented limbs of arthropods eliminate the need for one of the coelom's main ancestral functions, as a hydrostatic skeleton, which muscles compress in order to change the animal's shape and thus enable it to move. Hence the coelom of the arthropod is reduced to small areas around the reproductive and excretory systems. Its place is largely taken by a hemocoel, a cavity that runs most of the length of the body and through which blood flows.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 527–528Arthropods have open circulatory systems, although most have a few short, open-ended arteries. In chelicerates and crustaceans, the blood carries oxygen to the tissues, while hexapods use a separate system of tracheae. Many crustaceans, but few chelicerates and tracheates, use respiratory pigments to assist oxygen transport. The most common respiratory pigment in arthropods is copper-based hemocyanin; this is used by many crustaceans and a few centipedes. A few crustaceans and insects use iron-based hemoglobin, the respiratory pigment used by vertebrates. As with other invertebrates the respiratory pigments of those arthropods that have them are generally dissolved in the blood and rarely enclosed in corpuscles as they are in vertebrates.The heart is typically a muscular tube that runs just under the back and for most of the length of the hemocoel. It contracts in ripples that run from rear to front, pushing blood forwards. Sections not being squeezed by the heart muscle are expanded either by elastic ligaments or by small muscles, in either case connecting the heart to the body wall. Along the heart run a series of paired ostia, non-return valves that allow blood to enter the heart but prevent it from leaving before it reaches the front.Arthropods have a wide variety of respiratory systems. Small species often do not have any, since their high ratio of surface area to volume enables simple diffusion through the body surface to supply enough oxygen. Crustacea usually have gills that are modified appendages. Many arachnids have book lungs. Tracheae, systems of branching tunnels that run from the openings in the body walls, deliver oxygen directly to individual cells in many insects, myriapods and arachnids.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 530, 733Living arthropods have paired main nerve cords running along their bodies below the gut, and in each segment the cords form a pair of ganglia from which sensory and motor nerves run to other parts of the segment. Although the pairs of ganglia in each segment often appear physically fused, they are connected by commissures (relatively large bundles of nerves), which give arthropod nervous systems a characteristic "ladder-like" appearance. The brain is in the head, encircling and mainly above the esophagus. It consists of the fused ganglia of the acron and one or two of the foremost segments that form the head – a total of three pairs of ganglia in most arthropods, but only two in chelicerates, which do not have antennae or the ganglion connected to them. The ganglia of other head segments are often close to the brain and function as part of it. In insects these other head ganglia combine into a pair of subesophageal ganglia, under and behind the esophagus. Spiders take this process a step further, as all the segmental ganglia are incorporated into the subesophageal ganglia, which occupy most of the space in the cephalothorax (front "super-segment").Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 531–532There are two different types of arthropod excretory systems. In aquatic arthropods, the end-product of biochemical reactions that metabolise nitrogen is ammonia, which is so toxic that it needs to be diluted as much as possible with water. The ammonia is then eliminated via any permeable membrane, mainly through the gills. All crustaceans use this system, and its high consumption of water may be responsible for the relative lack of success of crustaceans as land animals.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 529–530 Various groups of terrestrial arthropods have independently developed a different system: the end-product of nitrogen metabolism is uric acid, which can be excreted as dry material; the Malpighian tubule system filters the uric acid and other nitrogenous waste out of the blood in the hemocoel, and dumps these materials into the hindgut, from which they are expelled as feces. Most aquatic arthropods and some terrestrial ones also have organs called nephridia ("little kidneys"), which extract other wastes for excretion as urine. Senses The stiff cuticles of arthropods would block out information about the outside world, except that they are penetrated by many sensors or connections from sensors to the nervous system. In fact, arthropods have modified their cuticles into elaborate arrays of sensors. Various touch sensors, mostly setae, respond to different levels of force, from strong contact to very weak air currents. Chemical sensors provide equivalents of taste and smell, often by means of setae. Pressure sensors often take the form of membranes that function as eardrums, but are connected directly to nerves rather than to auditory ossicles. The antennae of most hexapods include sensor packages that monitor humidity, moisture and temperature.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 532–537 Most arthropods have sophisticated visual systems that include one or more usually both of compound eyes and pigment-cup ocelli ("little eyes"). In most cases ocelli are only capable of detecting the direction from which light is coming, using the shadow cast by the walls of the cup. However the main eyes of spiders are pigment-cup ocelli that are capable of forming images, and those of jumping spiders can rotate to track prey.Ruppert, Fox & Barnes (2004), pp. 578–580Compound eyes consist of fifteen to several thousand independent ommatidia, columns that are usually hexagonal in cross section. Each ommatidium is an independent sensor, with its own light-sensitive cells and often with its own lens and cornea. Compound eyes have a wide field of view, and can detect fast movement and, in some cases, the polarization of light. On the other hand the relatively large size of ommatidia makes the images rather coarse, and compound eyes are shorter-sighted than those of birds and mammals – although this is not a severe disadvantage, as objects and events within are most important to most arthropods. Several arthropods have color vision, and that of some insects has been studied in detail; for example, the ommatidia of bees contain receptors for both green and ultra-violet.Most arthropods lack balance and acceleration sensors, and rely on their eyes to tell them which way is up. The self-righting behavior of cockroaches is triggered when pressure sensors on the underside of the feet report no pressure. However many malacostracan crustaceans have statocysts, which provide the same sort of information as the balance and motion sensors of the vertebrate inner ear.The proprioceptors of arthropods, sensors that report the force exerted by muscles and the degree of bending in the body and joints, are well understood. However, little is known about what other internal sensors arthropods may have.