That’s according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science that says Greenland sharks can live longer than any other known animal advanced enough to have a backbone. Until now, the record-holder for the oldest vertebrate was the bowhead whale, known to have lived up to 211 years.
The Greenland shark, a massive carnivore that can be more than 16 feet long, hasn’t been studied much, and its life in the cold northern waters remains largely mysterious. Julius Nielsen, at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, says there had been some hints that Greenland sharks grow very slowly, perhaps less than a centimeter per year. That suggested the huge sharks might be ancient.
“We only expected that the sharks might be very old,” says Nielsen. “But we did not know in advance. And it was, of course, a very big surprise to learn that it was actually the oldest vertebrate animal.”
He and some colleagues obtained 28 female Greenland sharks taken by research vessels as unintended bycatch from 2010 to 2013. The researchers then used radiocarbon dating techniques on the lenses of the sharks’ eyes.
There’s a bit of uncertainty associated with the age estimates, but Nielsen says the most likely age for the oldest shark they found was about 390 years. “It was, with 95 percent certainty, between 272 and 512 years old,” he says. The researchers believe these sharks reach sexual maturity at about the age of 150 years.
“It’s a fascinating paper and certainly moves back the vertebrate longevity record by a substantial amount,” says Steven Austad, who studies the biology of aging at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “Even if you look at the low end of their estimate — 272 years — that’s still substantially longer than any other documented vertebrate.”
He says there are lots …