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Surprising Science

Scientists Estimate Greenland Sharks Could Live Up to 500 Years

Danish scientists use a new dating technique to find startling estimates for the age of the world’s longest-living vertebrate species.
A greenland shark

Most of us expect to live around 80-90 years at this point, given the average life expectancy. Maybe we can hit a 100, if we hang on long enough to take advantage of life-extending medical advancements. By contrast, the Greenland shark, would still be in puberty around a 100. The Arctic dweller reachers sexual maturity at about 150 years old. That’s a pretty long time being a snarky shark teen. But if you take into account that this shark can live at least 272 years, as stated in a recent study, this creature can afford to take its time.

The scientists cannot yet know the exact age of such an animal with certainty, but the dating technique certainly gives some eye-opening estimates. The oldest Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) are projected to live up to 500 years, the longest such feat by a vertebrate. That’s a sizable chunk of history from the human perspective. Scientists from the University of Copenhagen used radiocarbon dating on the shark’s eye lens to come to this conclusion. More specifically, they used the pulse of carbon-14 produced by 1950s nuclear tests to approximate the ocean giant’s age.

“We are 95 percent certain that it is between 272 and 512 years,” said Julius Nielsen, a doctoral candidate who was involved in the study. “This is the first time ever anyone has made an age range of uncertainty of 240 years and they still consider it a success.” 

The slow-growing and slow-moving beast reaches about 5-6 meters (16-20 feet) in length, making it one of the largest sharks on Earth. Interestingly, it is known to have toxic flesh and is yet the source of a peculiar Icelandic delicacy called “hákarl”, which would be disgusting to most. It has a foul smell and is made by letting shark meat rot and ferment in dirt for months.

If you’re wondering, the oldest sea creature (vertebrate or not) is considered to be a 507-Icelandic clam.

Want to know more about Greenland sharks? Check out these videos:


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