FLAT-FISH (Pleuronectidae), the name common to all those fishes which swim on their side, as the halibut, turbot, brill, plaice, flounder, sole, &c. The side which is turned towards the bottom, and in some kinds is the right, in others the left, is generally colourless, and called “blind,” from the absence of an eye on this side. The opposite side, which is turned upwards and towards the light, is variously, and in some tropical species even vividly, coloured, both eyes being placed on this side of the head. All the bones and muscles of the upper side are more strongly developed than on the lower; but it is noteworthy that these fishes when hatched, and for a short time afterwards, are symmetrical like other fishes.
Assuming that they are the descendants of symmetrical fishes, the question has been to determine which group of Teleosteans may be regarded as the ancestors of the flat-fishes. The old notion that they are only modified Gadids (Anacanthini) was the result of the artificial classification of the past and is now generally abandoned. The condition of the caudal fin, which in the cod tribe departs so markedly from that of ordinary Teleosteans, is in itself a sufficient reason for dismissing the idea of the homocercal flat-fishes being derived from the Anacanthini, and the whole structure of the two types of fishes speaks against such an assumption. On the other hand it has been shown, as noticed in the article Dory, that considerable, deep-seated resemblances exist between the Zeidae or John Dories and the more generalized of the Pleuronectidae; and that a fossil fish from the Upper Eocene, Amphistium paradoxum, evidently allied to the Zeidae, appears to realize in every respect the prototype of the Pleuronectidae before they had assumed the asymmetry which characterizes them as a group. In accordance with these views the flat-fishes are placed by G. A. Boulenger in the suborder Acanthopterygii, in a division called Zeorhombi. The three families included in that division can be traced back to the Upper Eocene, and their common ancestors will probably be found in the Upper Cretaceous associated with the Berycidae, to which they will no doubt prove to be related. The very young are transparent and symmetrical, with an eye on each side, and swim in a vertical position. As they grow, the eye of one side moves by degrees to the other side, where it becomes the upper eye. If at that age the dorsal fin does not extend to the frontal region, the migrating eye simply moves over the line of the profile, temporarily assuming the position which it preserves in some of the less modified genera, such as Psettodes; in other genera, the dorsal fin has already extended to the snout before the migration takes place, and the eye, passing between the frontal bone and the tissues supporting the fin, appears to make its way from side to side through the head, as was believed by some of the earlier observers.
About 500 species of flat-fish are known, mostly marine, a few species allied to the sole being confined to the fresh waters of South America, West Africa, and the Malay Archipelago, whilst a few others, such as the English flounder, ascend streams, though still breeding in the sea. They range from the Arctic Circle to the southern coasts of the southern hemisphere and may occur at great depths. (G. A. B.)