Scientists killed world’s oldest living creature
- November 15, 2013 – 10:01AM
Ming the Mollusc: was 507 years old when he died.
When scientists inadvertently killed what turned out to be the world’s oldest living creature, it was bad enough.
Now, their mistake has been compounded after further research found it was even older – at 507 years.
The ocean quahog – a type of deep-sea clam – was dredged alive from the bottom of the North Atlantic near Iceland in 2006 by researchers. They then put it in a freezer, as is normal practice, unaware of its age.
It was only when it was taken to a laboratory that scientists from Bangor University studied it and concluded it was 400 years old.
The discovery made it into the Guinness Book of World Records however by this time, it was too late for Ming the Mollusc – named after the Chinese dynasty on the throne when its life began.
Now, after examining the ocean quahog more closely, using more refined methods, the researchers have found the animal was actually 100 years older than they first thought.
Dr Paul Butler, from the University’s School of Ocean Sciences, said: “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.”
A quahog’s shell grows by a layer every year, in the summer when the water is warmer and food is plentiful. It means that when its shell is cut in half, scientists can count the lines in a similar way trees can be dated by rings in their trunks.
The growth rings can be seen in two places; on the outside of the shell and at the hinge where the two halves meet. The hinge is generally considered by scientists as the best place to count the rings, as it is protected from outside elements.
When researchers originally dated Ming, they counted the rings at the hinge.
However because it was so old, many had become compressed. When they looked again at the outside of the shell, they found more rings.
It means the mollusc was born in 1499 – just seven years after Columbus discovered America and before Henry VIII had even married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1509.
Scientists say they can study the clam’s layers to find out about sea temperatures and water masses from thousands of years ago.
Jan Heinemeier, associate professor at the University of Denmark, who helped date Ming, told Science Nordic: “The fact alone that we got our hands on an animal that’s 507 years old is incredibly fascinating, but the really exciting thing is of course everything we can learn from studying the mollusc.”
The Daily Telegraph, London