At one time a "diverse and abundant" group (based on the fossil record), their closest living relatives are sharks and rays, though their last common ancestor with them lived nearly 400 million years ago. Today, they are largely confined to deep water.
Chimaeras live in temperate ocean floors down to 2,600 m (8,500 ft) deep, with few occurring at depths shallower than 200 m (660 ft). Exceptions include the members of the genusCallorhinchus, the rabbit fish and the spotted ratfish, which locally or periodically can be found at relatively shallow depths. Consequently, these are also among the few species from the chimaera order kept in public aquaria. They have elongated, soft bodies, with a bulky head and a single gill-opening. They grow up to 150 cm (4.9 ft) in length, although this includes the lengthy tail found in some species. In many species, the snout is modified into an elongated sensory organ.
Like other members of the class Chondrichthyes, chimaera skeletons are constructed of cartilage. Their skin is smooth and naked, lacking placoid scales (except in the claspers), and their color can range from black to brownish gray. For defense, most chimaeras have a venomousspine in front of the dorsal fin.
They also differ from sharks in that their upper jaws are fused with their skulls and they have separate anal and urogenital openings. They lack sharks' many sharp and replaceable teeth, having instead just three pairs of large permanent grinding tooth plates. They also have gill covers or opercula like bony fishes.
In some classifications, the chimaeras are included (as subclass Holocephali) in the class Chondrichthyes of cartilaginous fishes; in other systems, this distinction may be raised to the level of class. Chimaeras also have some characteristics of bony fishes.
A renewed effort to explore deep water and to undertake taxonomic analysis of specimens in museum collections led to a boom during the first decade of the 21st century in the number of new species identified. There are 50 extant species in six genera and four families are described; an additional three genera and two families are only known from fossils):