It looked just like any other mollusk when scientists from Bangor University, Wales in the UK, pulled it out of the water during a 2006 expedition to Iceland.
It turned out that this rather unassuming creature, since dubbed Ming the Mollusk, was in fact the oldest living animal on record –and to discover that, the scientists had to kill it.
After dredging for Arctica islandica bivalve mollusks, more commonly known as ocean quahogs, the scientists put the still alive mollusks in a freezer in order to preserve what they thought was a routine sample of deep-sea marine life.
It wasn’t until they came to analyze the creature, opening its shell and unfortunately killing it, that they began to suspect the mollusk was more than 400 years old. That discovery made headlines around the world and even saw Ming, named after the presiding Chinese dynasty when its life began, enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest mollusk known to-date. It is also officially the longest living animal on record (depending on how we define “animal”).
It turns out that record will have to be amended though, because Ming was probably closer to 507 years old when it died.
The mistake in calculating Ming’s age occurred as a result of how a mollusk’s age is measured. Scientists can calculate the age of various shellfish based on the striations in their shells, roughly like counting the rings on a tree trunk.
Specifically, the quahog grows a new layer to its shell on a roughly yearly basis providing the water is warm and it has plenty of food. Opening the shell and counting from the hinge can therefore give scientists a rough estimate of the quahog’s age.
So, the university scientists counted the rings on Ming’s shell, starting at the hinge. However because they were unaware of how old Ming was, they failed to account for the fact that the rings might have been compressed. Now that they have used more refined techniques to examine the shell, they have been able to get a truer picture of Ming’s age.
“We got it wrong the first time and maybe we were a bit hasty publishing our findings back then. But we are absolutely certain that we’ve got the right age now,” ocean scientist Paul Butler is quoted as telling ScienceNordic.
The scientists now believe that Ming was born in 1499 — just a few years after Columbus is believed to have discovered America and having lived through a number of wars and world crises. Fortunately it can also still claim the name Ming due to the fact that the dynasty covered a 300 year period.
Until relatively recently it was thought that bivalves, a group of mollusks to which the quahog belong, lived no more than 100 years. Then gradually deep sea samples revealed quahogs exceeding the century mark. The oldest official record until Ming was found was still only a trifling 220-year-old though.
Given that thousands of quahogs are caught commercially each and every year, it’s entirely possible that Ming may not in fact be the oldest quahog out there and that some of our oldest living animals have been killed without the fact ever being known. A caveat should be made that Ming’s record also depends on how we define the animal kingdom as there are certain primitive organisms out there that beat Ming’s record by literally thousands of years.
Ming’s Long Life May Hold a Number of Secrets
Now, if a centuries old mollusk isn’t enough to wow you — well, we’re very different people — there are other things that are very interesting about Ming, and chiefly what Ming can tell us about climate change.
The ring patterns on Ming’s shell give specific insight into historical marine temperatures, something that scientists have relatively few ways of tracking when compared to the variety of methods for tracking land temperatures.
As such, analyzing mollusk shells for their specific composition and how they have changed through the years can yield information into how closely marine temperatures have mirrored land temperatures and crucially whether land temperature spikes are a result of warming waters. They may also enable us to track water composition and acidification rates. That becomes especially useful when scientists have such a long lived specimen like Ming who was alive for a considerable amount of years and so can give a good body of data for scientists to work with.
If that wasn’t enough, Ming might also shed light on why is it that mollusks can live for centuries. Theories suggest that the low oxygen environment and resulting low metabolic rate that mollusks live with can partly answer that question, but scientists are keen to explore the genetic inheritance that allows such a long life.
In the meantime, this story perhaps serves to illustrate how even the most seemingly unremarkable creature can be important. It also demonstrates yet again how often our methods of probing for information about the world around us can come at a tragic cost.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.