Balanoglossus, the general name given to certain peculiar, opaque, worm-like animals which live an obscure life under stones, and burrow in the sand from between tide-marks down to the abyssal regions of the sea. Their colour is usually some tone of yellow with dashes of red, brown and green, and they frequently emit a pungent odour. The name has reference to the tongue-shaped muscular proboscis by which the animal works its way through the sand. The proboscis is not the only organ of locomotion, being assisted by the succeeding segment of the body, the buccal segment or collar. By the waves of contraction executed by the proboscis accompanied by inflation of the collar, progression is effected, sometimes with marvellous rapidity. The third body region or trunk may attain a great length, one or two feet, or even more, and is also muscular, but the truncal muscles are of subordinate importance in locomotion, serving principally to promote the peristaltic contractions of the body by which the food is carried through the gut.
The function of alimentation is closely associated with that of locomotion, somewhat as in the burrowing earthworm; in the excavation of its burrows the sand is passed through the body, and any nutrient matter that may adhere to it is extracted during its passage through the intestine, the exhausted sand being finally ejected through the vent at the orifice of the burrow and appearing at low tide as a worm casting. In accordance with this manner of feeding, the mouth is kept permanently open and prevented from collapsing by a pair of skeletal cornua belonging to a sustentacular apparatus (the nuchal skeleton), the body of which lies within the narrow neck of the proboscis; the latter is inserted into the collar and surrounded by the anterior free flap of this segment of the body.
When first discovered by J. F. Eschscholtz at the Marshall Islands in 1825, Balanoglossus was described as a worm-like animal belonging to the Echinoderm order of Holothurians or sea-cucumbers. In 1865 Kowalevsky discovered that the organs of respiration consist of numerous pairs of gill-slits leading from the digestive canal through the thickness of the body-wall to the exterior. On this account the animal was subsequently placed by Gegenbaur in a special class of Vermes, the Enteropneusta. In 1883-1886 Bateson showed by his embryological researches that the Enteropneusta exhibit chordate (vertebrate) affinities in respect of the coelomic, skeletal and nervous systems as well as in regard to the respiratory system, and, further, that the gill-slits are formed upon a plan similar to that of the gill-slits of Amphioxus, being subdivided by tongue-bars which depend from the dorsal borders of the slits.
In correspondence with the tri-regional differentiation of the body in its external configuration, the coelom (body-cavity, perivisceral cavity) is divided into three portions completely separated from one another by septa: - (1) proboscis-coelom, or first body-cavity; (2) the collar-coelom, or second body-cavity; (3) truncal coelom, or third body-cavity. Of these divisions of the coelom the first two communicate with the exterior by means of a pair of ciliated pore-canals placed at the posterior end of their respective segments. The proboscis-pores are highly variable, and frequently only one is present, that on the left side; sometimes the pore-canals of the proboscis unite to open by a common median orifice, and sometimes their communication with the proboscis-coelom appears to be occluded, and finally the pore-canals may be quite vestigial. The collar-pores are remarkable for their constancy; this is probably owing co the fact that they have become adapted to a special function, the inhalation of water to render the collar turgid during progression.
There are reasons for supposing that the truncal coelom was at one time provided with pore-canals, but supposed vestiges of these structures have only been described for one genus, Spengelia, in which they lie near the anterior end of the truncal coelom.