The use of otolith chemistry to characterize diadromous migrations


  • B. D. Walther,

    Corresponding author
    1. The University of Texas at Austin, Marine Science Institute, 750 Channel View Drive, Port Aransas, TX 78373, U.S.A.
      Tel.: +1 361 749 6810; email:
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  • K. E. Limburg

    1. Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, State University of New York, Syracuse, NY 13210, U.S.A.
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Tel.: +1 361 749 6810; email:


Chemical constituents in otoliths have become a valuable tool for fish ecologists seeking to reconstruct migratory patterns and life-history diversity in a wide range of species worldwide. This approach has proved particularly effective with fishes that move across substantial salinity gradients over the course of their life, including many diadromous species. Freshwater endmembers of several elemental and isotope ratios (e.g. Sr:Ca, Ba:Ca and 87Sr:86Sr) are typically identifiably distinct from marine values, and often differ among freshwater tributaries at fine spatial scales. Because these chemical tags are generally incorporated in proportion to their ambient dissolved concentrations, they can be effective proxies for quantifying the presence, duration and frequency of movements between freshwater and marine habitats. The development of high precision probe-based analytical techniques, such as laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and microbeam methods, has allowed researchers to glean increasingly detailed life-history profiles of these proxies across otoliths. Researchers are also combining multiple chemical proxies in an attempt to refine interpretations of habitat residence patterns. A thorough understanding of the spatial and temporal variation in water chemistry as well as environmental and physiological controls on incorporation of specific elements into otoliths is required for confident estimation of lifetime salinity experience. First some assumptions, methodological considerations and data processing options that are particularly relevant to diadromous otolith chemistry studies are discussed. Insights into diadromous migrations obtained from decades of otolith chemistry research, highlighting the increasingly recognized importance of contingent behaviour and partial migration are then discussed. Finally, areas for future research and the need to integrate otolith chemistry studies into comprehensive assessments of the effects of global environmental change are identified.