Background The internal phylogenetic relationships of Annelida, one of the key lophotrochozoan lineages, are still heavily debated. Recent molecular analyses suggest that morphologically distinct groups, such as the polychaetes, are paraphyletic assemblages, thus questioning the homology of a number of polychaete morphological characters. Serpulid polychaetes are typically recognized by having fused anterior ends bearing a tentacular crown and an operculum. The latter is commonly viewed as a modified tentacle (= radiole) and is often used as an important diagnostic character in serpulid systematics. Results By reconstructing the developmental neuroanatomy of the serpulid polychaete Spirorbis cf. spirorbis (Spirorbinae), we found striking differences in the overall neural architecture, the innervation pattern, and the ontogenetic establishment of the nervous supply of the operculum and the radioles in this species. Accordingly, the spirorbin operculum might not be homologous to the radioles or to the opercula of other serpulid taxa such as Serpula and Pomatoceros and is thus probably not a part of the tentacular crown. Conclusion We demonstrate that common morphological traits such as the prostomial appendages may have evolved independently in respective serpulid sublineages and therefore require reassessment before being used in phylogenetic analyses. Our findings corroborate recent molecular studies that argue for a revision of serpulid systematics. In addition, our data on Spirorbis neurogenesis provide a novel set of characters that highlight the developmental plasticity of the segmented annelid nervous system.