The head of ray-finned fishes is structurally complex and is composed of numerous bony, muscular, and ligamentous elements capable of intricate movement. Nearly two centuries of research have been devoted to understanding the function of this cranial musculoskeletal system during prey capture in the dense and viscous aquatic medium. Most fishes generate some amount of inertial suction to capture prey in water. In this overview we trace the history of functional morphological analyses of suction feeding in ray-finned fishes, with a particular focus on the mechanisms by which suction is generated, and present new data using a novel flow imaging technique that enables quantification of the water flow field into the mouth. We begin with a brief overview of studies of cranial anatomy and then summarize progress on understanding function as new information was brought to light by the application of various forms of technology, including high-speed cinematography and video, pressure, impedance, and bone strain measurement. We also provide data from a new technique, digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) that allows us to quantify patterns of flow into the mouth. We believe that there are three general areas in which future progress needs to occur. First, quantitative three-dimensional studies of buccal and opercular cavity dimensions during prey capture are needed; sonomicrometry and endoscopy are techniques likely to yield these data. Second, a thorough quantitative analysis of the flow field into the mouth during prey capture is necessary to understand the effect of head movement on water in the vicinity of the prey; three-dimensional DPIV analyses will help to provide these data. Third, a more precise understanding of the fitness effects of structural and functional variables in the head coupled with rigorous statistical analyses will allow us to better understand the evolutionary consequences of intra- and interspecific variation in cranial morphology and function.