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At 400, clam may be longest-lived animal known

Oct. 30, 2007
Courtesy Bangor University
and World Science staff

Can you im­ag­ine liv­ing four cen­turies? Sci­en­tists say they’ve found an an­i­mal that did just that: a qua­hog clam, Arc­tica is­landica, that lived and grew in the cold wa­ters off Ice­land’s north coast for at least that long.

Courtesy Bangor University


When Shake­speare was writ­ing his great­est plays, the re­search­ers say—when Gior­da­no Bru­no was burnt at the stake in Rome for claim­ing in­fi­nite hab­it­a­ble worlds ex­ist—this mol­lusc was but a ten­der youth, ob­liv­i­ous to these de­vel­op­ments.

The Guin­ness Book of Records gives the cur­rent rec­ord for long­est-lived an­i­mal to an­oth­er Arc­tica clam, age 220, col­lect­ed in 1982 from Amer­i­can wa­ters. Un­of­fi­cial­ly, the rec­ord be­longs to a 374-year-old Ice­land­ic clam found in a mu­se­um. 

Both these rec­ords, the re­search­ers said, seem to have been eclipsed by the lat­est spec­i­men, whose age, 405 to 410 years, they as­sessed by count­ing an­nu­al growth lines on its shell.

The sci­en­tists, from Ban­gor Un­ivers­ity in the U.K., are scle­ro­chro­nol­o­gists, who study clam growth and age us­ing growth lines much as den­dro­chro­nol­o­gists study tree growth us­ing tree-rings. Clam shell growth is re­lat­ed to en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­ti­ons such as sea tem­per­a­ture, salin­ity and food avail­abil­ity. The Ban­gor team an­a­lyses the growth his­to­ries to un­der­stand changes in the ocean linked to cli­mate change.

The clam was dredged up by Paul But­ler and James Scourse of the un­ivers­ity dur­ing a re­search cruise last year as part of a Eu­ro­pe­an Un­ion in­ves­ti­g­ati­on of his­tor­i­cal cli­mate changes. The dis­cov­ery was made by Al Wan­a­ma­ker, the new­est mem­ber of the un­ivers­ity’s “Arc­tica” team, said mem­ber Chris Rich­ard­son. “Al and Paul rushed up to my of­fice to an­nounce that they had found a rec­ord-breaker,” he re­counted. Fur­ther ex­am­in­ati­on, he said, con­firmed the clam had beat­en the pre­vi­ous rec­ord by three de­c­ades.

Why do these clams live so long? The Ban­gor in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve the mol­luscs may have evolved excepti­onally strong de­fences against de­struc­tive ag­ing pro­cesses. “If, in Arc­tica is­landica, evoluti­on has cre­at­ed a mod­el of suc­cess­ful re­sist­ance to the dam­age of ag­ing, it is pos­si­ble that an in­ves­ti­g­ati­on of the tis­sues of these real life Me­thu­se­lahs might help us to un­der­stand the pro­cesses of ag­ing,” said Rich­ard­son.


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Can you imagine living four centuries? Scientists say they’ve found an animal that has done just that: a quahog clam, Arctica islandica, that lived and grew in the cold waters off Iceland’s north coast for at least that long. When Shakespeare was writing his greatest plays, the researchers say—when Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome for claiming infinite habitable worlds exist—this mollusc was but a tender youth oblivious to these developments. The Guinness Book of Records gives the current record for longest-lived animal to another Arctica clam, age 220, collected in 1982 from American waters. Unofficially, the record belongs to a 374-year-old Icelandic clam found in a museum. Both these records, the researchers said, seem to have been eclipsed by the latest specimen, whose age, 405 to 410 years, they assessed by counting the shell’s annual growth lines. The scientists, from Bangor University in the U.K., are sclerochronologists, who study clams’ growth and age using growth lines much as dendrochronologists study tree growth using tree-rings. Clam shell growth is related to environmental conditions such as sea temperature, salinity and food availability. The Bangor team analyse the shell growth histories to understand changes in the ocean linked to climate change. The clam was dredged up by Bangor researchers Paul Butler and James Scourse during a research cruise last year as part of an European Union investigation of historical climate changes. The discovery was made by Al Wanamaker, the newest member of the university’s “Arctica” team. “Al and Paul rushed up to my office to announce that they had found a record-breaker,” said team member Chris Richardson. Further examination, he said, confirmed the clam had beaten the previous record by 30 years. Why do these clams live so long? The Bangor investigators believe they may have evolved exceptionally strong defences against destructive aging processes. “If, in Arctica islandica, evolution has created a model of successful resistance to the damage of aging, it is possible that an investigation of the tissues of these real life Methuselahs might help us to understand the processes of aging,” said Richardson.