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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick: Ode to the Otolith (with Drums and Grunts) (for the Week of Feb. 25, 2007)

February 16, 2007

Q. Dear Twig: My sister and my friend and I found "lucky stones" on a beach at Lake Erie. My aunt said they came from the ears of a fish. True?

A. Yep, true. Props to your aunt!

To be exact, the "lucky stones" that you found on the beach likely came from a fish called the freshwater drum, a big-eyed, sad-faced, round-tailed fish that people call grunt, sheepshead and silver bass, too.

The drum has an ear on each side of its head. And each of these ears has a part way inside it that scientists call the otolith ("OH-toe-lith").

Otoliths help with balance and hearing. Most fish have them. But the drum's are bigger than most. They look like big, fat, white, shiny buttons, the size of a penny or a nickel or bigger, with the shape of an "L" on one side.

Made out of calcium carbonate, the same stuff present in seashells and eggshells, otoliths last for years and years. They last a lot longer than the fish itself. They last long enough for somebody to find them!


P.S. Otoliths get bigger every year. They tell scientists many things: how fast a fish grew, etc.!

Notes: "To the fisheries biologist, the otolith is one of the most important tools for understanding the life of fish and fish populations. Growth rings not unlike those of a tree record the age and growth of a fish from the date of hatch to the time of death. ... Virtually the entire lifetime of the fish is recorded in the otolith." So writes Steven E. Campara, Otolith Research Laboratory, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Nova Scotia, Canada, at Also sources: Ohio Division of Wildlife,; Ohio History Central,

About this column: "Smart Stuff with Twig Walkingstick," a free public service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences - specifically, of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and Ohio State University Extension, both part of the College - is a weekly column for children about science, nature, farming and the environment. The reading level typically rates at grades 3.5-4.5. For details, to ask Twig a question, and/or to receive the column free by mail or e-mail, contact Kurt Knebusch, CommTech, OSU/OARDC,1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691,, (330) 263-3776. Online at

Kurt Knebusch