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flatfish common name for any member of the unique and widespread order
Pleuronectiformes containing over 500 species (including the flounder, halibut,
plaice, sole, and turbot), 130 of which are American. Flatfishes are common in
both the Atlantic and Pacific; many are important food and game fishes. All
flatfishes have an unusual flattened body form well suited to life on the bottom.
The development of the young flatfish recapitulates to some degree the
probable evolutionary process. The newly hatched transparent larvae are
bilaterally symmetrical, but soon the characteristic compression of the body
develops and one eye "migrates" to the other side of the head—either the left or
the right, depending on the species. Changes occur also in the skeletal and
digestive systems; adults have only one dorsal and one anal fin, both without
spines. The underside of the flatfish is pale and the top is colored to match the
environment; some species, especially the flounders, are able to change their
pigmentation . Flatfishes are divided into two groups: the soles, families
Soleidae, Cynoglossidae, and Achiridae; and the flounders (including the
halibuts and others), families Bothidae and Pleuronectidae.

The Soles

The American soles, of which there are several Atlantic and one Pacific species,
have small, close-set eyes and small, twisted mouths with few or no teeth. They
prefer warm, shallow water with a sandy or muddy bottom and are generally
too small and bony for food. The hogchoker, or broad sole, and the tonguefish,
family Cynoglossidae, are most common. The European species Solea solea, a
2-ft (61-cm) flatfish found from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, is a
valuable food fish, the source of filet of sole (in the United States filet of sole is
usually flounder).

The Flounders

The flounders are much larger fishes, including the fluke ( Paralichthys ), the
halibut ( Hippoglossus ), the dab ( Limanda ), and the plaice ( Pleuronectes ).
The smooth flounder is found on muddy bottoms in cold, shallow northern
waters. The southern, or winter, flounder ( Pseudopleuronectes americanus ) is
an important food and game fish, taken in large numbers by trawlers. Like other
flounders it migrates in winter to deeper waters to breed. It belongs to the
righteye flounder family, Pleuronectidae. Similar is the summer flounder (
Paralichthys dentatus ), of the lefteye flounder family, Bothidae, called fluke by
fishermen, common from Maine to the Carolinas. The starry flounder, more
brightly colored than its drab relatives, is a common Pacific species found from
mid-California N to Alaska and W to Asia. Flounders feed on worms,
crustaceans, and other small bottom invertebrates.

The European plaice is an important food fish, as is the American plaice, or

sand dab, of which 3,000 tons are taken annually. The American plaice is
common at depths of from 20 to 100 fathoms on muddy or sandy bottoms,
where it feeds on sea urchins, sand dollars, and other bottom life and grows to
30 in. (76.2 cm) and 14 lb (6.4 kg).

The halibuts are the largest flatfishes and are of great commercial importance.
The Atlantic and the Pacific halibuts, Hippoglossus hippoglossus and H.
stenolepis, respectively, are very similar, with large mouths and sharp, strong
teeth. They feed voraciously on other fish and are found in colder waters. The
maximum weight of a halibut is 600 lb (270 kg), but the usual specimens caught
offshore at 100 to 400 fathoms weigh from 20 to 100 lb (9-45 kg); the male is
generally much smaller than the female. The California halibut, a smaller
species (up to 60 lb/27 kg), is found S of San Francisco.

The commercially valuable tribe of European flatfishes called turbots is

represented in American waters by a single species, Psetta maxima, commonly
called the window pane, found on the Atlantic coast from Maine to the
Carolinas. It is much smaller than its European cousins, rarely weighing over 2
lb (.9 kg), whereas the European turbots may reach 30 lb (13.5 kg).


Flatfishes are classified in the phylum Chordata , subphylum Vertebrata, class

Osteichthyes, order Pleuronectiformes.