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 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.
The flatfish are an order (Pleuronectiformes) of ray-finned fish, also called the Heterosomata, sometimes classified as a suborder of Perciformes. The name means "side-swimmers" in Greek. In many species both eyes lie on one side of the head, one or the other migrating through and around the head during development. Some species face their "left" side upward, some face their "right" side upward, and others face either side upward. The other distinguishing features of the order are the presence of protrusible eyes, another adaptation to living on the seabed (benthos), and the extension of the dorsal fin onto the head.
Many important food fish are in this order, including the flounders, soles, turbot, plaice, and halibut. There are more than 400 species of this order. Some flatfish can camouflage themselves on the ocean floor.
... bony fish as a rule have a marked tendency to be flattened in a vertical direction.... It was natural, therefore, that when the ancestors of [flatfish] took to the sea bottom, they should have lain on one side.... But this raised the problem that one eye was always looking down into the sand and was effectively useless. In evolution this problem was solved by the lower eye 'moving' round to the upper side.
The development of flatfish is thus considered to recapitulate their evolutionary history.
In 2008, scientists discovered "50-million-year-old fossils have revealed an intermediate species between primitive flatfishes (with eyes on both sides of their heads) and the modern, lopsided versions, which include sole, flounder, and halibut." The research concluded that "the change happened gradually, in a way consistent with evolution via natural selection—not suddenly, as researchers once had little choice but to believe."
The asymmetric geometry of flatfish has been likened to the cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso, and is often perceived as being "imperfect", "grotesque", "strange", etc. It is likely that the asymmetry contributes to their survival by helping to disguise them on the ocean floor.