Review of ‘Otoliths of Common Australian Temperate Fish: A Photographic Guide’ by Dianne Furlani, Rosemary Gales and David Pemberton

01st June 2009

Weisler book review cover AA68Otoliths of Common Australian Temperate Fish: A Photographic Guide by Dianne Furlani, Rosemary Gales and David Pemberton. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood Vic. 2007, vii+208 pp., ISBN 9780643092556.

Marshall Weisler

School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia Qld 4072, Australia

This is one of those volumes that was developed and written with little concern for the goals and interests of archaeology, yet is immensely valuable in our pursuits to understand prehistoric diet, subsistence practices, ecological relationships of people to their prey, sustainability of fisheries, seasonality, and, in some cases, ideology. So what lies at the intersection of these topics that we spend much of our time investigating? The humble otolith. Measuring from a couple of millimeters to rarely exceeding 15mm, otoliths are generally round to oblong slivers of calcium carbonate that are found in pairs in the neurocranium of vertebrates; sagittal otoliths are the largest and most often used for study. Their size, shape and architectural features permit identification to fish species. As otoliths can survive the gastrointestinal acids of sea mammals and whales and, indeed, the gizzards of seabirds, otoliths are essential for determining the diet of these animals as well as cephalopods and penguins. Marine scientists Furlani, Gales and Pemberton have spent decades investigating predator-prey relationships and the ecology and interactions of predators with commercial fishers as ‘the ability to identify trophic linkages through identification of prey remains is a significant tool in increasing our understanding of ecosystem functioning and the effects of perturbations on our marine environment’ (p.4). The authors of this volume have done a great service to archaeology by providing a guide to otoliths of fish species that occur predominately in the temperature waters of southeast Australia. The volume looks at some 141 species, from 68 families and 15 orders and covers a broad range of taxa, but not all species in this region. A number of the illustrated families have importance to archaeology: whiting (Sillaginidae), bream and snapper (Sparidae), perch (Serranidae, Sebastidae), cods (Moridae), wrasse (Labridae) and mullet (Mugilidae).

Species in the guide are arranged by phylogenetic sequence. Fish length and weight are recorded for each specimen. A simple linear regression describes the relationship of otolith length and weight to fish length and weight (p.4), which is of great value for determining the size of human prey. For the uninitiated, otolith terminology is clearly set out (pp.5-8) noting important landmarks used for identification and general shapes that are encompassed by the collection. Excellent scanning electron microscopy (SEM) images are presented for each described taxon. Importantly, the volume illustrates ontological changes for select species; for example, the marked differences of otoliths from a 96mm and 263mm flounder (p.181) that could make identification difficult without this crucial information. The SEM images are clear and detailed and they all come with a 1mm scale bar making comparisons across the volume much easier. Smaller photographs of each species are presented in the systematic species list facilitating identification. Included here is the family, genus, species and common name; otolith image, then page number locating the full otolith description, morphometry (otolith dimensions, sample size and regression data), distribution and ecology and predator-prey information.

Archaeologists have made forays into otolith analysis. Some 25 years ago Balme (1983) provided a comprehensive study of golden perch (Maguaria ambigua) and cod (Maccullochella sp.) otoliths estimating the size of fish caught to infer prehistoric fishing strategies near lakes and rivers of New   South Wales. Otoliths have also been used to increase the diversity of identified fish in Torres Strait assemblages (Crouch et al. 2007:57). Farther afield, new records of important food fish in Hawaii have been identified with otoliths in the absence of identifiable bones (Weisler 1993). Despite these encouraging results, the interest in otolith identification has been slow to take hold. Imagine what archaeologists may be able to contribute by analysing a stratified and well-dated assemblage of fish otoliths. As the incremental growth-bands record water temperature history, determining the values for oxygen isotopes in otoliths can contribute to the debate on global warming with long-term historical data during human habitation. The humble otolith, then, may well contribute information fundamental to our discipline. Consequently, this volume deserves a place in every university library across the nation and in archaeology laboratories that specialise in fish identification in the region covered.


Balme, J. 1983 Prehistoric fishing in the Lower Darling, Western New South Wales. In C. Grigson and J. Clutton-Brock (eds), Animals and Archaeology: Vol. 2: Shell Middens, Fishes and Birds, pp.19–32. BAR International Series 183. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Crouch, J., I.J. McNiven, B. David, C. Rowe and M. Weisler 2007 Berberass: Marine resource specialization and environmental change in Torres Strait during the past 4000 years. Archaeology in Oceania 42(2):49–64.

Weisler, M.I. 1993 The importance of fish otoliths in PacificIsland archaeofaunal analysis. New Zealand Journal of Archaeology 15:131–159.

Marshall Weisler
Review of ‘Otoliths of Common Australian Temperate Fish: A Photographic Guide’ by Dianne Furlani, Rosemary Gales and David Pemberton
June 2009
Book Reviews
You must be a member to download the attachment ( Login / Sign up )