For this reason, flatfishes became a key example for a novel evolutionary argument that went like this: sometimes groups arise instantaneously from large-scale mutations that are usually deleterious but, under unusual conditions, might be adaptive. This "hopeful monster" scenario was invoked for flatfishes in the 1930s, and has been the popular perception of their origins ever since. But the new study in Nature, called "The evolutionary origin of flatfish asymmetry," determines that flatfishes are not "monsters" or mistakes, nor did their unusual body plan evolve suddenly.
Something old, something new
More than 500 species of modern flatfishes live in fresh and salt water. All have an unusual flattened body form that is well adapted to life at the bottom. Some families of flatfishes have both eyes on the right side of their head while other families have both eyes on the left side.
Typically, the undersides of flatfishes are white or pale, but their uppersides are camouflaged to fit in with the surroundings. Some species are able to change the color of their upperside. Weighing up to 720 pounds, these carnivorous bottom-feeders vary considerably in size from 4 inches to 7 feet. Many are important game and food fishes.
The Nature study examined several specimens of two kinds of fossil fishes from the Eocene (about 50 million years ago) of northern Italy. One of these is a newly described genus that Friedman has named Heteronectes (meaning "different swimmer"). He discovered it in a museum drawer at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.
The other fossil, Amphistium, is known from several specimens from the same Italian site as Heteronectes and a single fossil from France. It has been known to science but incorrectly classified for more tha
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