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Schulz-Mirbach, Tanja; Ladich, Friedrich; Plath, Martin and Hess, Martin (2019): Enigmatic ear stones: what we know about the functional role and evolution of fish otoliths. In: Biological Reviews, Vol. 94, No. 2: pp. 457-482

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Otoliths in bony fishes play an important role in the senses of balance and hearing. Otolith mass and shape are, among others, likely to be decisive factors influencing otolith motion and thus ear functioning. Yet our knowledge of how exactly these factors influence otolith motion is incomplete. In addition, experimental studies directly investigating the function of otoliths in the inner ear are scarce and yield partly conflicting results. Herein, we discuss questions and hypotheses on how otolith mass and shape, and the relationship between the sensory epithelium and overlying otolith, influence otolith motion. We discuss (i) the state-of-the-art knowledge regarding otolith function, (ii) gaps in knowledge that remain to be filled, and (iii) future approaches that may improve our understanding of the role of otoliths in ear functioning. We further link these functional questions to the evolution of solid teleost otoliths instead of numerous tiny otoconia as found in most other vertebrates. Until now, the selective forces and/or constraints driving the evolution of solid calcareous otoliths and their diversity in shape in teleosts are largely unknown. Based on a data set on the structure of otoliths and otoconia in more than 160 species covering the main vertebrate groups, we present a hypothetical framework for teleost otolith evolution. We suggest that the advent of solid otoliths may have initially been a selectively neutral 'by-product' of other key innovations during teleost evolution. The teleost-specific genome duplication event may have paved the way for diversification in otolith shape. Otolith shapes may have evolved along with the considerable diversity of, and improvements in, auditory abilities in teleost fishes. However, phenotypic plasticity may also play an important role in the creation of different otolith types, and different portions of the otolith may show different degrees of phenotypic plasticity. Future studies should thus adopt a phylogenetic perspective and apply comparative and methodologically integrative approaches, including fossil otoliths, when investigating otoconia/otolith evolution and their function in the inner ear.

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