Members of the clade Osteichthyes, or bony fishes, are characterized by a bony skeleton. The vast majority of present-day fishes belong to this group, which consists of approximately 30,000 species, making it the largest class of vertebrates in existence today.
Nearly all bony fishes have an ossified skeleton with specialized bone cells (osteocytes) that produce and maintain a calcium phosphate matrix. This characteristic has only reverted in a few groups of Osteichthyes, such as sturgeons and paddlefish, which have primarily cartilaginous skeletons. The skin of bony fishes is often covered in overlapping scales, and glands in the skin secrete mucus that reduces drag when swimming and aids the fish in osmoregulation. Like sharks, bony fishes have a lateral line system that detects vibrations in water. Unlike sharks, some bony fish depend on their eyesight to locate prey. Bony fish are also unusual in possessing taste cells in the head and trunk region of the body that allow them to detect extremely small concentrations of molecules in the water.
All bony fishes, like the cartilaginous fishes, use gills to breathe. Water is drawn over gills that are located in chambers covered and ventilated by a protective, muscular flap called the operculum. Unlike sharks, bony fishes have a swimbladder, a gas-filled organ that helps to control the buoyancy of the fish. Bony fishes are further divided into two clades with living members: Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes) and Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fishes).
The ray-finned fishes include many familiar fishes—tuna, bass, trout, and salmon (Figure 15.40), among others. Ray-finned fishes are named for the form of their fins—webs of skin supported by bony spines called rays. In contrast, the fins of lobe-finned fishes are fleshy and supported by bone (Figure 15.40). Living members of lobe-finned fishes include the less familiar lungfishes and coelacanth.