Ask A Scientist: That’s a lot of birthdays to shell-ebrate!

Amazing Anglerfish asks, “How old are clams?”


What a great question, Amazing Anglerfish! Are you ready for an amazing answer? Some clams can live for over 500 years! In 2006 researchers found a clam on the bottom of the ocean floor near Iceland that was 507 years old. You can tell a clam’s age by counting the layers of shell that it has, kind of like counting the rings on a tree. Scientists named this 507 year old clam Ming and it is one of the longest lived animals in the world! Before the discovery of Ming the clam, it was estimated that these clams only lived for 100, maybe 200, years. It was named Ming because it was born during the Ming Dynasty in China in the year 1499. For some perspective, 4 years later Leonardo da Vinci would paint the Mona Lisa and 15 years later William Shakespeare would be born. This clam sure saw a lot over its lifetime. This particular clam was an Ocean Quahog, a type of clam commonly eaten by humans. If you’ve ever eaten clam chowder, you’ve eaten Ocean Quahog. Next time you take a bite of chowder, remember Ming the clam!

The longest lived land animal (that we know of) is a 183 year old giant tortoise named Jonathan, but when it comes to living a long time, ocean animals take the cake. There are deep-sea sponges estimated to be over 11,000 years old and bowhead whales that can live to be over 200! So, how do these animals live so long? Lots of them live in the deep ocean where it is cold (close to freezing!) and dark. It’s a bit like these animals are growing up in the refrigerator. A cold environment lowers their body temperature, meaning that their bodies don’t have to work as hard to stay alive.

Scientists are still discovering new things about aging all the time. There are jellyfish that instead of growing old and dying, they simply revert to an earlier stage in their life cycle. This means that they could hypothetically live forever! It also makes it impossible to tell how old they are. With science advancing every day, what will you discover?

-Hollis, the marine biologist


Hollis Jones is a PhD student in the Ecology Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is studying sustainable aquaculture.

Main image [source]: An ocean quahog clam sitting in the surf.

If you have any questions about animals for our scientists, you can submit them here.

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