Physical characteristics

Flying gurnards are one of the most recognizable of all spiny-rayed fishes because of their large heads, greatly developed winglike pectoral fins, and free pectoral rays. Their bodies are covered with ctenoid scales. They have a very characteristic "helmet-like" skull with a strong preopercular spine that gives them their other common name (helmet gurnards). Dactylopterids have a short snout with a subterminal mouth. Their jaws are filled with small, conical teeth. Flying gurnards have two dorsal fins separated by a deep notch, which typically have a couple of free dorsal spines detached from and preceding the first dorsal fin. As was found in the flatheads, sculpins (Cottoidei), and some sea robins, the dactylopterids lack true anal spines.

Typically, flying gurnards lie on the seafloor with their pectoral wings folded against the body. When dactylopterids have their wings folded, they are well camouflaged on the seafloor because of their dusky red and drab white, brown, and black markings. When startled, however, flying gurnards quickly spread their brightly colored pectoral fins (covered with bluish and whitish spots, for example) to distract would-be predators and make their quick escape. Flying gurnards can reach lengths of up to 15.7 in (40 cm).

Flatheads are recognized easily by their elongate bodies with depressed, broad heads. They typically are covered with ctenoid scales, except for their lower flanks and ventral surfaces, which often are covered by cycloid scales. The ghost flatheads lack scales, but their dorsal surface is overlaid with spiny, bony plates. All flatheads and their allies have large eyes placed close together high on their heads. The eyes of platy-cephalids often are covered with highly ornamented eye flaps. All platycephaloid heads are overlaid with bony or spiny ridges. These ridges are particularly well developed in the ghost flatheads. Platycephaloid jaws are filled with numerous bands of small, conical teeth, but Ratabulus megacephalus has strong canine teeth. Flatheads have two dorsal fins, the first with true spines. Bembrids and hoplichthyids usually have a single anal spine, but true anal spines are lacking in platy-cephalids. Most flatheads are dark dorsally and pale ventrally. The dark colors are various shades of brown, black, or gray, but the more colorful taxa can be red, purple, and green. The deepwater flatheads tend to be red, orange, and light brown, and the ghost flatheads are typically yellow, pink, or brown. Ghost flatheads and bembrids usually are smaller (11.8-15.7 in, or 30-40 cm) than the larger platycephalids (up to 27.6 in, or 70 cm).

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