14 Nov 2013

Oldest animal in world older than thought – but still dead

A clam found on the Icelandic seabed known as “Ming” turns out to be 507 years old – 100 years older than scientists thought. Shame they killed it when they opened up its shell to study it…

Ming the quahog clam is 507 years old, researchers confirm (Bangor University)

The United States was the new kid on the block (and centuries away from being founded as a country); Leonardo da Vinci was about to begin work on the Mona Lisa, and most people would still have laughed at you if you suggested the earth revolved around the sun.

The past is a foreign country – but one clam discovered in the seabed near Iceland has more of a claim than any other animal to have travelled in it.

Ming the ocean quahog first hit the headlines in 2007 as the longest-lived animal known to science. At that point, the researchers at Bangor University who discovered the creature’s existence believed it to be around 405 years old.

There’s worse news for Ming though. It may have been beaten – by a sponge.

Quahogs, or arctica islandica, are dated by the growth lines on their shell in the same way that the age of trees can be worked out by the rings in their trunks.

However, a new study of the clam’s age suggests it could be as old as 507 years, smashing its own previous record – meaning the mollusc was born way back in 1499.

An abrupt end

Paul Butler, ocean scientist at Bangor University, told ScienceNordic: “We got it wrong the first time and maybe we were a bit hasty publishing our findings back then. But we are absolutely certain that we’ve got the right age now.”

But its long life came to a sudden end when scientists opened up its shell to study it in 2006, unaware of its great age. They say the ancient clam could help them study the process of ageing and even climate change, because isotopes in the growth rings on the animal’s shell can determine the sea temperature at the time when they formed.

What are the world's oldest living things? 
Some ancient bacteria which can clone or turn dormant and re-activate: 3.5 billion years, or since the beginning of life on earth. They are effectively immortal. But this might be pushing the definition of "living" a little.
Tasmanian King's Holly cluster: if you count a plant "cloning itself" by budding off and creating new plants, this plant found in 1996 is over 46,000 years old.
Bristlecone pines: can live for 5,000 years or more (if you count plants).
Glass sponges: 15,000 years (if you count 'simple animals' or primitive metazoa).
Ming the quahog clam: 507 years.
Bowhead whales: up to 211 years.
Giant Galapagos tortoises: up to 177 years.
Elephants: 70 years.
Parrots: 70 years. Source: Science Museum

They also point out that other clams, caught commercially by fishermen, could be older than Ming – it is just the oldest one studied by scientists.

The clam’s age is marked by its name, Ming. It is named after the Chinese Ming dynasty which was in power when it was born. Luckily, the name still stands, as the dynasty lasted for almost 300 years: from 1368 to 1644.

There’s worse news for Ming though. Regardless of the clam’s added century, its claim to fame as the oldest animal might still be up for debate.

If simple animals, or “primitive metazoa” are counted, Ming has been beaten – by a sponge. A “glass sponge” (pictured below with some other long-lived animals, bottom right) can live for 15,000 years.

The oldest animals (Getty and Carinbondar.com)