Quantcast

400 Year Old Greenland Shark Is World's Oldest Vertebrate

Popular

Around the same time pilgrims were trying to make it on the colony of Jamestown, a young shark was swimming around the Arctic seas. This special female shark—born approximately 400 years ago—might be the world's oldest vertebrate, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

The ancient and mysterious Greenland shark is likely the world's oldest animal with a backbone. Flickr

As it turns out, the Greenland shark species can live longer than any animal with a backbone, marine biologist Julius Nielsen of Copenhagen University and his team discovered.

"We had our expectations that we were dealing with an unusual animal, but I think everyone doing this research was very surprised to learn the sharks were as old as they were," Nielsen told the BBC.

The previous longest-living vertebrate was the bowhead whale which can live more than 200 years. This shark's age is even within striking distance with the world's oldest animal. An ancient ocean quahog clam (an invertebrate) was 507 years old when it was found.

Unfortunately, as The Independent pointed out, the four-century-old shark was accidentally killed not long ago by fishermen. In fact, the only way the researchers were able to pull off this study was because they had obtained 28 female Greenland sharks that were unintended bycatch from 2010 to 2013.

Greenland sharks grow at an incredibly slow growth rate of less than a centimeter per year on average, Gizmodo noted. The sharks that were studied ranged in sizes between 2.6 feet to 16.4 feet.

There has not been a lot of prior study on the Greenland shark. To determine the age of these mysterious sharks, researchers used radiocarbon dating on the sharks's eye lens. The study said that this large yet slow-growing species do not even reach sexual maturity until they are about 150 years old, when they are about 13 feet long. The largest shark was born about 392 years ago, but could have been aged between 272 and 512 years old.

"Even with the lowest part of this uncertainty, 272 years, even if that is the maximum age, it should still be considered the longest-living vertebrate," Nielsen said.

The Greenland shark lives in the icy, deep waters of the North Atlantic and are a near threatened species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Once hunted for its liver oil, the current population is now threatened due to it being accidentally hauled by fishing operations.

The authors of the study have raised concerns about species conservation due to the commercial fishing industry.

"Our estimates strongly suggest a precautionary approach to the conservation of the Greenland shark, because they are common bycatch in arctic and subarctic groundfish fisheries and have been subjected to several recent commercial exploitation initiatives," the study states.

Additionally, as the The Independent described from the study, these sharks have had to bear the brunt of a lot of human activity:

Some of the sharks bore signs of humans' impact on the planet—such as the radiocarbon signature left by open-air nuclear bomb tests in the mid-20th century and possibly a chemical time marker caused by emissions of fossil fuels, which has been detected in the marine food chain since the early 20th century.

The story of the Greenland Shark also highlights the importance of conservation. Nielsen described how it might be difficult for its population to rebound.

"When you evaluate the size distribution all over the North Atlantic, it is quite rare that you see sexually mature females, and quite rare that you find newborn pups or juveniles," he told the BBC.

"It seems most are sub-adults. That makes sense: if you have had this very high fishing pressure, all the old animals—they are not there any more. And there are not that many to give birth to new ones.

"There is, though, still a very large amount of 'teenagers,' but it will take another 100 years for them to become sexually active."

Nielsen told Gizmodo that he does not consider the sharks threatened, "but I do consider them vulnerable."

"This definitely advocates for a precautionary approach in terms of exploitation, and for minimizing bycatch," he said.

Sonja Fordham, president of Shark Advocates International, seconded the opinion. "While scientists may continue to debate absolute longevity, it is clear that the Greenland shark is exceptionally slow growing, late to mature, and long-lived, even by shark standards," she told Gizmodo. "As is the case for most sharks, these life history characteristics make Greenland sharks particularly susceptible to overexploitation and slow to recover once depleted."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Lake Delhi Dam in Iowa failed in 2010. VCU Capital News Service / Josh deBerge / FEMA

At least 1,688 dams across the U.S. are in such a hazardous condition that, if they fail, could force life-threatening floods on nearby homes, businesses, infrastructure or entire communities, according to an in-depth analysis of public records conducted by the the Associated Press.

Read More Show Less

By Sabrina Kessler

Far-reaching allegations about how a climate-sinning American multinational could shamelessly lie to the public about its wrongdoing mobilized a small group of New York students on a cold November morning. They stood in front of New York's Supreme Court last week to follow the unprecedented lawsuit against ExxonMobil.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

By Alex Robinson

Leah Garcés used to hate poultry farmers.

The animal rights activist, who opposes factory farming, had an adversarial relationship with chicken farmers until around five years ago, when she sat down to listen to one. She met a poultry farmer called Craig Watts in rural North Carolina and learned that the problems stemming from factory farming extended beyond animal cruelty.

Read More Show Less
People navigate snow-covered sidewalks in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Nov. 11 in Chicago. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Temperatures plunged rapidly across the U.S. this week and around 70 percent of the population is expected to experience temperatures around freezing Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
A general view of the flooded St. Mark's Square after an exceptional overnight "Alta Acqua" high tide water level, on Nov. 13 in Venice. MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP / Getty Images

Two people have died as Venice has been inundated by the worst flooding it has seen in more than 50 years, The Guardian reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Supply boats beside Aberdeen Wind Farm on Aug. 4, 2018. Rab / CC BY 2.0

President Donald Trump doesn't like wind turbines.

In April, he claimed they caused cancer, and he sued to stop an offshore wind farm that was scheduled to go up near land he had purchased for a golf course in Aberdeenshire in Scotland. He lost that fight, and now the Trump Organization has agreed to pay the Scottish government $290,000 to cover its legal fees, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
A verdant and productive urban garden in Havana. Susanne Bollinger / Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

Read More Show Less
Trevor Noah appears on set during a taping of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" in New York on Nov. 26, 2018. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah / YouTube screenshot

By Lakshmi Magon

This year, three studies showed that humor is useful for engaging the public about climate change. The studies, published in The Journal of Science Communication, Comedy Studies and Science Communication, added to the growing wave of scientists, entertainers and politicians who agree.

Read More Show Less