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Long-lived clam

Harald Franzen
November 20, 2017

Longevity may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of clams but some of the squishy creatures can live for centuries — if we let them.

Ocean quahog from the North Sea
Image: cc by Hans Hillewaert-sa 3.0

When we think of clams, most of us probably think of food. From New England to India, people love to eat clams. But if the mollusks manage to evade predators like us, they can actually live to be quite old. To the tune of half a millennium.

But how can we even tell how old a clam is? Conveniently, they have growth lines. Much like tree-rings, the many fine lines on their shells denote their age, with one line representing one year.

The record holder (as far as we know) is the ocean quahog (Arctica islandica). These mollusks are quite common in the North Atlantic where they are harvested commercially. But one particular creature, which was later nick-named "Ming," managed to elude "harvesting" for centuries.

But in 2006, Ming's luck ran out. A group of researchers pulled her out of the ocean off the coast of Iceland. Initially thought to be an impressive 405 years old, scientists later revised their assessment to a grand 507. By that reckoning, when Ming first saw the light of day, the Americas had just been discovered, Martin Luther was only 16 years old and yes, the Ming-Dynasty ruled China.

Sadly, we will never know how much longer the aged clam might have lived if she had been left in her element. Before they realized what a unique specimen they had caught, the researchers froze the mollusk to preserve it - killing it in the process.