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Chapter: 11th Zoology : Chapter 5 : Digestion and Absorption

Structure of the alimentary canal

The alimentary canal is a continuous, muscular digestive tract that begins with an anterior opening, the mouth and opens out posteriorly through the anus.

Structure of the alimentary canal


The alimentary canal is a continuous, muscular digestive tract that begins with an anterior opening, the mouth and opens out posteriorly through the anus. The alimentary canal consists of mouth, buccal cavity, pharynx, oesophagus, stomach, intestine, rectum and anus (Figure. 5.1). The mouth is concerned with the reception of food and leads to the buccal cavity or oral cavity (Figure. 5.2). Mechanical digestion is initiated in the buccal cavity by chewing with the help of teeth and tongue. Chemical digestion is through salivary enzymes secreted by the salivary glands.


Each tooth is embedded in a socket in the jaw bone; this type of attachment is called thecodont. Human beings and many mammals form two sets of teeth during their life time, a set of 20 temporary milk teeth (deciduous teeth) which gets replaced by a set of 32 permanent teeth (adult teeth). This type of dentition is called diphyodont. The permanent teeth are of four different types (heterodont),namely, Incisors- (I) chisel like cutting teeth, -Canines (C) dagger shaped tearing teeth, Pre molars (PM) for grinding, and Molars (M) for grinding and crushing. Arrangement of teeth in each half of the upper and lower jaw, in the order of I, C, PM and M can be represented by a dental formula, in human the dental- formula is 2123/2123.


Mineral salts like calcium and magnesium are deposited on the teeth and form a hard layer of ‘tartar’ or calculus called plaque. If the plaque formed on teeth is not removed regularly, it would spread down the tooth into the narrow gap between- the gums and enamel and causes inflammation, called gingivitis, which leads to redness and bleeding of the gums and to bad smell. The hard chewing surface of the teeth is made of enamel and helps in mastication of food.


Tongue is a freely movable muscular organ attached at the posterior end by the frenulum to the floor of the buccal cavity and is free in the front. It acts as a universal tooth brush and helps in intake food, chew and mix food with saliva, to swallow food and also to speak. The upper surface of the tongue has small projections called papillae with taste buds.


The oral cavity leads into a short common passage for food and air called pharynx. The oesophagus and the trachea (wind pipe) open into the pharynx. Food passes into the oesophagus through a wide opening called gullet at the back of the pharynx. A cartilaginous flap called -epiglottis prevents the entry of food into the glottis (opening of trachea) during swallowing. Two masses of lymphoid tissue- called tonsils are also located at the sides of the pharynx.


Oesophagus is a thin long muscular tube concerned with conduction of the food to a ‘J’ shaped stomach passing through the neck, thorax and diaphragm. A cardiac sphincter (gastro oesphageal sphincter) regulates the opening of oesophagus into the stomach (Figure. 5.1). If the cardiac sphincter does not contract properly during the churning action of the stomach the gastric juice with acid may flow back into the oesophagus and cause heart burn, resulting in GERD (Gastero Oesophagus Reflex Disorder).


The stomach functions as the temporary storage organ for food and is located in the upper left portion of the abdominal cavity. It consists of three parts – a cardiac portion into which the oesophagus opens; a fundic portion and a pyloric portion that opens into the duodenum. The opening of the stomach into the duodenum is guarded by the pyloric sphincter. It periodically allows partially digested food to enter the duodenum and also prevents regurgitation of food. The inner wall of stomach has many folds called gastric rugae which unfolds to accommodate a large meal.


The small intestine assists in the final digestion and absorption of food. It is the longest part of the alimentary canal and has three regions, a ‘U’ shaped duodenum (25cm long), a long coiled middle portion jejunum (2.4m long) and a highly coiled ileum (3.5m long). The wall of the duodenum has Brunner’s glands which secrete mucus and enzymes. Ileum is the longest part of the small intestine and opens into the caecum of the large intestine. The ileal mucosa has numerous vascular projections called villi which are involved in the process of absorption and the cells lining the villi produce numerous microscopic projections called microvilli giving a brush border appearance that increase the surface area enormously. Along with villi, the ileal mucosa also contain mucus secreting goblet cells and lymphoid tissue known as Peyer’s patches which produce lymphocytes. The wall of the small intestine bears crypts between the base of villi called crypts of Leiberkuhn(Figure.5.3).


The large intestine consists of caecum, colon and rectum. The caecum is a small blind pouch like structure that opens into the colon and it possesses a narrow finger like tubular projection called vermiform appendix . Both caecum and vermiform appendix are large in herbivorous animal and act as an important site for cellulose digestion with the help of symbiotic bacteria. 


The colon is divided into four regions – an ascending, a transverse, a descending part and a sigmoid colon. The colon is lined by dilations called haustra (singular – haustrum) (Figure.5.4). The “S” shaped sigmoid colon (pelvic colon) opens into the rectum. Rectum is concerned with temporary storage of faeces. The rectum open out through the anus. The anus is guarded by two anal sphincter muscles. The anal mucosa is folded into several vertical folds and contains arteries and veins called anal columns. Anal column may get enlarged and causes piles or haemorrhoids.


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