A Greenland shark has lived at least 272 years, making the species the longest-lived vertebrate in the world – smashing the previous record held by a 211-year-old bowhead whale. But it may have been as old as 500 years. Living deep in the North Atlantic and the frigid surface waters of the Arctic, Greenland sharks have a stable environment and grow just a few centimeters per year.
Nielsen and his colleagues focused on radiation in the sharks’ eyes. Nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and ’60s blasted radioactive particles into the atmosphere.
Those particles entered food webs all over the world and show up in the form of radioactive forms of carbon in organisms that lived through that period. Because Greenland sharks’ eye lens tissue doesn’t change during its lifetime, it preserves the historic radiation.
After catching a 2.2-metre shark that showed radiation levels indicating it was born in the 1960s and was about 50 years old, the team calculated how fast the sharks grew.
The team estimated that one 5-meter animal was at least 272 years old – but could be more than 500 years old (392 +/- 120 years). Another was at least 260 years old, and could be more than 400 years old.
Deep living for centuries
We tend to think of vertebrates as living about as long as we do, give or take 50 to 100 years. Marine species are likely to be very long-lived, but determining their age is particularly difficult. Nielsen et al. used the pulse of carbon-14 produced by nuclear tests in the 1950s—specifically, its incorporation into the eye during development—to determine the age of Greenland sharks. This species is large yet slow-growing. The oldest of the animals that they sampled had lived for nearly 400 years, and they conclude that the species reaches maturity at about 150 years of age.
The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus), an iconic species of the Arctic Seas, grows slowly and reaches >500 centimeters (cm) in total length, suggesting a life span well beyond those of other vertebrates. Radiocarbon dating of eye lens nuclei from 28 female Greenland sharks (81 to 502 cm in total length) revealed a life span of at least 272 years. Only the smallest sharks (220 cm or less) showed signs of the radiocarbon bomb pulse, a time marker of the early 1960s. The age ranges of prebomb sharks (reported as midpoint and extent of the 95.4% probability range) revealed the age at sexual maturity to be at least 156 ± 22 years, and the largest animal (502 cm) to be 392 ± 120 years old. Our results show that the Greenland shark is the longest-lived vertebrate known, and they raise concerns about species conservation.
SOURCES – Science, New Scientist