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Is analysis of otolith microstructure a valid method for investigating early life history of Western Baltic cod?

Daily formation of fish otolith micro-increments is frequently assumed, however applying inferences about timing of life history events and formation of otolith macro-structures requires further validation of the periodicity of micro-increment formation. We analysed micro-increments from Western Baltic cod (WBC, Gadus morhua) otoliths marked with tetracy-cline-hydrochloride as part of an age validation study to test the assumption of daily formation of micro-increments. We found that the number of counted micro-increments consistently underestimated the age of cod aged 1 and older. Time at liberty was also underestimated, especially for fish at liberty during winter. In contrast, micro-increment counts of otoliths from wild-caught young-of-the-year (YOY) cod could be used to realistically estimate timing of hatch and translucent zone formation. Under ambient conditions, settlement did not correspond to any visible pattern within the otoliths, but could be inferred from the prey switch observed from stomach content analyses. We therefore conclude that micro-increments can be assumed to form on a daily basis until the first winter, and can therefore be used to investigate early life history of YOY WBC. However, the periodicity of micro-increment formation appears to vary seasonally in older individuals, with the number of micro-increments formed during the winter period being particularly low.

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