This 400-Year-Old Shark Could Be Earth’s Oldest Vertebrate
It was born about the same time Don Quixote was published
In a recent discovery reported by the journal Science, scientists have discovered a breed of shark in Greenland that can live for as many as 400 years, which would make them the longest-living vertebrates on the planet. Previously, the bowhead whale was thought to carry the title with a measly lifespan of up to 200 years.
Though, to be fair, a Greenland shark’s lifespan might be the least interesting thing about the species. According to The Verge, adult Greenland sharks can be over 20 feet in length, but it takes centuries for them to reach that size. Unlike their younger shark counterparts, they swim at a standard pace of one mile per hour—that’s significantly slower than your average grandmother crossing the street with her walker. Greenland sharks also spend their lives mostly blind as a result of parasites feasting on their corneas.
The report, led by marine biologist John Steffensen from the University of Copenhagen, explains how researchers were able to determine the incredible age of these sharks and their sluggish growth rate of one centimeter per year. Among standard methods such as comparing Greenland shark body sizes, scientists tested the sharks for “bomb pulses” of carbon-14. Apparently, nuclear bomb testing in the mid-1950s left detectable amounts of the heavy isotope that permeated the water and marine life.
In an interview with Science magazine, cold-water physiologist Michael Oellermann, said of the innovative technique, "Who would have expected that nuclear bombs could help to determine the lifespan of marine sharks?"
By matching up radiocarbon dates with shark body lengths, scientists determined one particularly old shark to be about 392 years old with a 120-year margin of error. That would mean this shark was born about the time Don Quixote was published, colonists established their first settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, and Johannes Kepler figured out the world revolves around the sun. What a time to be alive.