Scientists date world's oldest animal at 507 years old — after they accidentally kill it

Researchers at Bangor University have identified identified the world's oldest animal: a 507-year-old bivalve mollusc, or ocean quahog, named Ming.

Alas, although Ming survived countless wars and fashion trends, it could not survive the research process: it died when scientists pried it open to discover its age.

Ming was located in 2006 as part of an expedition to Iceland. Researchers, unaware of its age or significance, accidentally killed the animal when opening it to investigate its age by literally counting its rings. At the time, scientists pegged Ming's age at 405, but the most recent studies indicate that Ming was, in fact, 507 years old.

The discrepancy came from differences in the types of counting. Scientists have established that ocean quahogs can be dated by counting the number of rings in its shell. It's long been presumed that the most accurate dating comes from counting the rings in the interior of the shell, an area protected by ligaments. But because Ming was so old, the rings were compacted into a few millimetres.

Scientists decided to undertake a more accurate count by totaling up the rings on the outside of the shell, and carbon-14 testing confirmed that count. Scientists can also see climate changes evidenced in the rings and can use the oxygen isotopes embedded in the rings to determine the ocean temperatures during various times in Ming's life.

The ocean quahog exhibits what's referred to as negligible senescence, which is roughly defined as not exhibiting any measurable decline in survival characteristics such as strength, mobility or reproductive capabilities. Ocean quahogs live roughly five times longer than humans.

Ming the ocean quahog. Photo: Bangor University.
Ming the ocean quahog. Photo: Bangor University.

What was happening around the time of Ming's birth in 1499?

Well, Ming derived its very name from the Ming Dynasty in power in China at the time. Christopher Columbus had just discovered the Americas. The Spanish Inquisition was rolling right along. Leonardo da Vinci was about to start painting the Mona Lisa. In other words, there was no one available to Instagram poor Ming's first birthday.

”After the story hit the media, we were contacted by people who were upset that the ocean quahog had been killed. But we had no idea it was that old before it was too late,” researcher Paul Butler told ScienceNordic. He pointed out that the numbers suggest Ming was not an outlier.

"It’s worth keeping in mind that we caught a total of 200 ocean quahogs on our Iceland expedition. Thousands of ocean quahogs are caught commercially every year, so it is entirely likely that some fishermen may have caught quahogs that are as old as or even older than the one we caught.”

ScienceNordic also notes that depending on the definition of "animal," Ming might not be the oldest after all. The glass sponge (Hexactinellida) is believed to reach an age of 15,000 years, with some as old as 23,000 years.

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