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How to tell the age of a fish and other things

Have you ever wondered how to tell the age of a fish? If it was born in an aquarium, it is easy to know, but what if it was caught in the wild? 

The teleost fishes have structures located in the inner ear called otoliths, which are used for balance and hearing. In Portugal, these structures are also known as "stones of judgment," which makes sense, since they are in the head of the fish! There are three pairs of otoliths and each has a different name: sagitta, lapillus and asteriscus. Otolith growth occurs through the alternating deposition of calcium carbonate and a protein that forms rings that can be observed in a cross section, much like those observed in the trunks of trees.

Otoliths of Myctophum affine larvae. Photo: Claudia Namiki.

In adult fish the otolith is big, thus it is necessary to cut, sand, and polish the otolith until the rings become visible. In larval fish the otoliths are small enough to see through and can simply be glued to a microscope slide. In the case of larval fish, the real work is to remove the otolith from from a fish between 2.0 mm and 2.0 cm length. If the larvae are so small, imagine the size of otoliths!! It is a difficult task that requires much patience. In Brazil we used to say that it requires the discipline and patience of a Japanese elder. I think I used the full 25% of my Japanese DNA while studying the larval growth of an abundant lanternfish species on the Brazilian coast (Myctophum affine). This species does not have a popular name in Brazil, because, although abundant and consumed by other fishes, it is not consumed by humans. In English they are called metallic lanternfish, but only fishermen or ichthyologists know of it.

The illustrious unknown Myctophum affine. Photo: Gabriel Monteiro.

Look at the size of this fish larvae otolith! It is a great one! Photo: Campana, S.E. preparation.html

So what does this have to do with the topic? How do we know the age of a fish?

In most cases, the formation of the otolith rings is daily in the fish larvae and annual in the adult fishes. Thus, counting the number of rings present in a otolith, we can know the age of the fish in years or days, depending on its life stage. The most interesting thing is that we can relate the age to the length of the fish; with data from various fish, we can know how long it takes a species to reach a certain size. For example, the larvae of the metallic lanternfish can increase their size more than four times in less than a month! Now that is a fast growth rate! Larvae of other popular species such as sardines and mackerel also grow at a similar rate.

Knowing the growth rate of larval and juvenile fish is important because it helps us determine how long each species takes to become a reproductively active adult. This growth rate may be influenced by several factors with temperature as one of the most important. Higher temperatures speed up the fish metabolism, which helps the animal grow more quickly. This means that if we were a fish, we would grow faster in Brazil than in Russia! For example, lantern fish larvae can take between 27 days (tropical species) to 80 days (cold climate species) to become a juvenile.

When I first started to study otoliths, I was only interested in the age and growth rate of fish larvae. However, I discovered that these structures are even more fascinating than I first thought. Because they are quite resilient (in the case of adult fish), the otoliths can be found almost intact in the stomach content of other animals and at archaeological sites. Additionally, otolith shape is unique to each species, so it is possible to identify the species that has been consumed, or that inhabited certain place thousands of years ago. The otolith shape is so important that many works are devoted to describing them, and among them is one otolith identification guide recently published in the Brazilian Journal of Oceanography, by researchers of the Oceanographic Institute of São Paulo University ( (which contains wonderful illustrations by our illustrator and oceanographer Silvia Gonsales).

Otoliths of Cangoá (Stellifer rastrifer) illustrated by Silvia Gonsales.

Stellifer rastrifer otoliths. Photo: Cesar Santificetur.

And the fish these are from, Stelllifer rastrifer. Photo: Carvalho Filho, A.

Moreover, the otoliths carry information from the environment where the fish lived (or should I say swam?). If we know which chemical elements are present in the otoliths, it is possible to know where the fish was throughout its life.

So, while otolith may be just a simple guidance instrument for the fish, for us it gives us access to a  world of information about the life history of these important organisms.


To find out more you may visit:

Campana, S.E. 2011. Otolith Microstructure Preparation. Available at:

Campana, S. E. & Jones, C. M. 1992. Analysis of otolith microstructure data. In Otolith Microstructure Examination and Analysis (Stevenson, D. K. & Campana, S. E., eds), pp. 73–100. Canadian Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 117.

Conley, W. J. & Gartner, J. V. 2009. Growth among larvae of lanternfishes (Teleostei: Myctophidae) from the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. Bulletin of Marine Science 84, 123–135.

Katsuragawa, M. & Ekau, W. 2003. Distribution, growth and mortality of young rough scad, Trachurus lathami, in the south-eastern Brazilian Bight. Journal of Applied Ichthyology, 19, 21–28.

Namiki, C.; Katsuragawa, M.; Zani-Teixeira, M. L. 2015. Growth and mortality of larval Myctophum affine (Myctophidae, Teleostei). Journal of Fish Biology, 86, 1335-1347. doi:10.1111/jfb.12643, Available at:

Rossi-Wongtschowski, C.L.D.B., Siliprandi, C.C., Brenha, M.R.,Gonsales, S.A., Santificetur, C., Vaz-dos-Santos, A.M. 2014.Atlas of marine bony fish otoliths (sagittae) of Southeastern- Southern Brazil Part I: Gadiformes Macrouridae, Moridae, Bregmacerotidae, Phycidae And Merlucciidae); Part II: Perciformes (Carangidae, Sciaenidae, Scombridae And Serranidae). Brazilian Journal of Oceanography, 62(special issue):1-103. Available at:

Zavalla-Camin, L. A., Grassi, R. T. B., Von Seckendorff, R.W. & Tiago, G. G.1991. Ocorrência de recursos epipelágicos na posição 22°11’S - 039°55’W, Brasil. Boletim do Instituto de Pesca 18, 13–21.

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