SEATTLE -- A tiny white sliver inside the heads of fish could hold evidence of a century's worth of humans wrecking the environment: atomic bombs, overfishing, even climate change.
Fish ear bones, also known as otoliths, are like tree rings for the ocean. A layer of calcium carbonate laid down each year offers a snapshot of both the fish's yearly growth and its surrounding ocean conditions.
The University of Washington's Burke Museum has been transferring and cataloging 2 million pairs of otoliths, representing some 80 species. Scientists hope this collection, gathered over the past half-century, will help them track the health of fish populations and ocean conditions up and down the West Coast.
The otolith collection, dating to the 1960s, had been sitting in an old Sand Point hangar belonging to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Last year, Ted Pietsch, a UW professor and curator of fishes at the Burke Museum, got a grant to transfer the otoliths to the museum — all of a 10-minute drive away.