The tricks that help some animals live for centuries

Dirty beige with grey-brown stain-like patches, Ming the clam was not much to look at. It did at least get a name, which is more than can be said for most molluscs. Estimated at 507 years old when scientists plucked it from the Icelandic seabed (and killed it) in 2006, the ocean quahog was the oldest known animal to have ever lived.

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In August 2016, researchers estimated a five-metre-long female Greenland shark had lived for 392 years, making it the longest-lived vertebrate. The mammalian lifespan record belongs to a bowhead whale, thought to have reached the grand old age of 211.

Perhaps it is because humans have become so dominant in other respects that we are fascinated by species that outlive us. For biologists, examples of extreme longevity raise fundamental questions about why organisms age and die. And given that they do, why can individuals of some species live for hundreds of years while others get months, weeks or even just days?

Humans are relatively long-lived. Some researchers hope that gaining greater knowledge of what drives longevity in the animal kingdom offers the chance, not only to understand those species better, but our own too. Others go further, believing it is the key to longer, healthier human lives.

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