Scientists Say Greenland Sharks May Live 400 Years

NOAA, Flickr // CC BY-2.0
NOAA, Flickr // CC BY-2.0

Get ready to feel like a baby: There may be sharks alive today that are older than the United States. Like, much older. Researchers found a Greenland shark that’s around 392 years old—and 27 others with an average age of 272 years old. They published their findings today, August 11, in the journal Science. 

Young or old, Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus, literally “tiny-headed sleeper”) are extraordinary creatures. They’re the second-largest carnivorous sharks in the world, reaching 2500 pounds. Their teeth are shaped and angled to remove plugs of flesh from their prey, and their own flesh is poisonous. 

Even so, Greenland sharks, like most sharks, present no risk to humans. They’re incredibly slow swimmers and live deep, deep down in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. These qualities make them both fascinating to scientists and tricky to track and study. And without data, it’s hard to argue that the sharks need protection.

Julius Nielsen

Previous studies had already found these sharks to have astonishingly long lives. The last estimate, based on a shark caught in 1952, concluded that they could live to be at least 200 years old. 

Science has come a long way since the 1950s, and researchers decided it was time to check again. Fortunately, they had access to a good number of Greenland sharks; unfortunately, that’s because those sharks had been accidentally caught in fishing nets and scientists’ long lines between 2010 and 2013. All 28 female sharks used in the study had been fatally injured by the time they landed onboard—some by other sharks, and some by fishing equipment—and so all were euthanized. After the sharks’ deaths, researchers measured each shark and took tissue samples from the lenses of its eyes. 

The scientists used radiocarbon dating on the samples to see if they could age the sharks. Once again, they had good data thanks to a bad situation—in this case, nuclear warfare. Scientists have known since the 1950s that nuclear bomb tests leave permanent molecular marks on sea creatures. Consequently, the appearance of bomb-related changes in an animal’s tissue can be seen as a sort of time stamp. But because these changes persist, even animals born after any given bomb can be marked by it if the animals they eat were alive during the test. 

By combining this information with the sharks’ body measurements, the scientists were able to estimate each animal’s approximate age. The youngest sharks sampled were less than 10 feet long and under 100 years old. These were mere pups for Greenland sharks; the data suggested that these animals don’t even reach sexual maturity until they’re around 150 years old. 

The oldest two sharks were 16 feet long apiece, and the scientists estimated their age at 335 (plus or minus 75 years) and 392 (plus or minus 120 years). Considering these averages, the researchers say, a conservative estimate of the shark’s longevity would put them at about 272 years old—still making them the oldest vertebrates on the planet. 

Given these astonishing findings and the threats posed to Greenland sharks by commercial fishing, the authors write, it’s time we start thinking about how to protect them.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

 

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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