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Temporal range: 416–0 Ma
Hydrolagus colliei.jpg
Hydrolagus colliei, a rat fish
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Subclass: Holocephali

The subclass Holocephali ("complete heads") is a taxon of cartilaginous fish in the class Chondrichthyes. The earliest fossils are of teeth and come from the Devonian period. Little is known about these primitive forms, and the only surviving group in the subclass is the order Chimaeriformes. This group includes the rat fishes in the genus Chimaera, and the elephant fishes in the genus Callorhynchus. These fishes move by using sweeping movements of their large pectoral fins. They have long slender tails and live close to the seabed feeding on benthic invertebrates. They lack a stomach, food moving directly into the intestine.


Members of this taxon preserve today some features of elasmobranch life in Paleozoic times, though in other respects they are aberrant. They live close to the bottom and feed on molluscs and other invertebrates. The tail is long and thin and they move by sweeping movements of the large pectoral fins. The erectile spine in front of the dorsal fin is sometimes poisonous. There is no stomach (that is, the gut is simplified and the 'stomach' is merged with the intestine), and the mouth is a small aperture surrounded by lips, giving the head a parrot-like appearance. The only surviving members of the group are the rabbit fish (Chimaera), and the elephant fishes (Callorhynchus).[1][2]


The fossil record of the Holocephali starts during the Devonian period.[3] The record is extensive, but most fossils are teeth, and the body forms of numerous species are not known, or at best poorly understood. Some experts[who?] further group the orders Petalodontiformes, Iniopterygiformes, and Eugeneodontida into the taxon "Paraselachimorpha", and treat it as a sister group to Chimaeriformes. However, as almost all members of Paraselachimorpha are poorly understood, most experts suspect this taxon to be either paraphyletic or a wastebasket taxon.

Taxonomy according to Joseph Nelson, 2006[4]
Subclass Holocephali

† Extinct * position uncertain


  1. ^ Pough, Janis & Heiser 2013, pp. 99,101, Table 5-1.
  2. ^ Martin, lead section.
  3. ^ Pough, Janis & Heiser 2013, pp. 103,105, Paleozoic Holocephalans.
  4. ^ Nelson 2006.