On the Validity of the Radiographic Method for Determining Age of Ancient Salmon
White rings visible on the centrum face of salmon vertebrae with X-rays have been used since the 1980s to age Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), which in turn have been used to determine salmon species, season of capture and season of site occupation. This approach relies on a variety of assumptions, the most fundamental of which is that rings represent true years. Recent aDNA analysis has shown that the X-ray approach has flaws but the source of the error has been unknown. Given the value of reconstructing salmon population demographics and life history from ancient remains, establishing a valid and reliable method of ageing salmon vertebrae is extremely worthwhile. The main goal of our study was to evaluate if X-ray images of ring patterns on vertebrae provide a valid method of estimating fish age. Vertebrae from 66 adult Chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha) of known age were studied with X-rays, thin sections or low-powered (10–30 ×) magnification. We found that the white bands observed in X-rays are structural walls that do not grow annually. While X-rays are not a valid method for ageing salmonids, incremental growth seen on the surface of fish centra shows great promise for reconstructing ancient fish life history.