All in the ears: Unlocking the early life history biology and spatial ecology of fishes

Danswell Starrs*, Brendan C. Ebner, Christopher J. Fulton

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    32 Citations (Scopus)


    Obtaining biological and spatial information of the early life history (ELH) phases of fishes has been problematic, such that larval and juvenile phases are often referred to as the 'black box' of fish population biology and ecology. However, a potent source of life-history data has been mined from the earstones (otoliths) of bony fishes. We systematically reviewed 476 empirical papers published between 2005 and 2012 (inclusive) that used otoliths to examine fish ELH phases, which has been an area of increasing attention over this period. We found that otolith-based research during this period could be split into two broad themes according to whether studies examined: (i) biological objectives related to intrinsic processes such as larval and juvenile age, growth and mortality, and/or (ii) spatial objectives, such as habitat use, dispersal and migration. Surprisingly, just 24 studies (5%) explored a combined biological-spatial objective by simultaneously exploiting biological and spatial information from otoliths, suggesting much more scope for such integrated research objectives to be answered via the use of multiple otolith-based techniques in a single study. Mapping otolith analytical techniques across these two approaches revealed that otolith structural analysis was mainly used to investigate biological processes, while otolith chemical analyses were most often applied to spatial questions. Heavy skew in research effort was apparent across biomes, with most (62%) publications specific to marine species, despite comparable levels of species richness and the importance of freshwater taxa (just 15% of papers). Indeed, around 1% (380 species) of a possible 31400+ extant species were examined in our surveyed papers, with a strong emphasis on temperate marine species of commercial value. Potential model species for otolith-based ELH ecology research are arising, with the eel genus Anguilla (24 studies) and the European anchovy Engraulis encrasicolis (14 studies) attracting more research effort than most other taxa. While there is a preponderance of common techniques (e.g. daily otolith increment counts, increment widths), novel techniques such as transgenerational marking and computed X-ray tomography, are increasingly being applied in published studies. The application of an integrative approach based on a combination of emerging techniques and traditional methods holds promise for major advances in our understanding of ELH fish ecology and to shine light into the 'black box' of fish ecology.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)86-105
    Number of pages20
    JournalBiological Reviews
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2016


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