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.

 

12-Year-Old Is Making Bow Ties for Shelter Dogs In Order To Help Them Find Their Forever Homes

GlobalP/iStock via Getty Images
GlobalP/iStock via Getty Images

At 2 years old, New Jersey native Darius Brown was diagnosed with delays in comprehension, speech, and fine motor skills. At 12, he’s already founded a company, spoken to a national news corporation, and sewn hundreds of bow ties.

Brown's company, Beaux and Paws, donates the bow ties he creates to shelters to help animals get adopted, Today reports. The hope is that since dogs and cats sporting bow ties are so unbelievably adorable, people won’t be able to resist taking them home. It combines two of Darius’s passions, fashion and animals, and the idea was years in the making.


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When Brown's sister, Dazhai Brown-Shearz, was creating girls’ hair ribbons in cosmetology school, she and their mother Joy Brown decided to involve then-8-year-old Darius in the process, thinking it might help him exercise his fine motor skills and also have a positive impact on other tasks he struggled with, like tying his shoes.

It worked, and it also ignited an enthusiasm for style and design that extended beyond hair ribbons: Brown began sewing festive, vibrant bow ties for himself, which he told Today he wears “literally everywhere.” People started stopping Brown on the street, asking where they could purchase them. Then, when the pre-teen learned about how shelters couldn’t accommodate all the animals displaced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, he had an idea for how to increase adoptions. Brown sent batches of bow ties to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and has since expanded his shipments to shelters all over the country.


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With more than 47,000 Instagram followers and a personal letter of commendation from former President Barack Obama, Beaux and Paws has grown exponentially since its inception, and Darius no longer needs to pay for supplies out of pocket; his GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $11,000. Brown is planning to put some of that money toward a summer trip that will take him to five different states, so that he can deliver his bow ties to shelters and assist with adoption events personally.

“We’re definitely very proud of Darius,” his mom told Today. “He’s overcome a lot and he’s still on his journey of overcoming a lot of things. He just keeps going for what he believes in.”

[h/t Today]

10 Quick Facts About Roadrunners

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

Anyone who was raised on Looney Tunes cartoons might be surprised to find out that roadrunners aren’t long-necked or purple-crested—but roadrunners and coyotes do occasionally engage in chases. Here are a few fast facts about these unusual desert birds.

1. Roadrunners are members of the cuckoo family.

Found in deserts, grasslands, and forests, the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) cruises through the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Its slightly smaller relative, the lesser roadrunner (Geococcyx velox), is generally found further south. Both birds belong to the cuckoo family, Cuculidae, which also includes anis and malkohas. All the members of the family have zygodactyl feet, with two forward-facing and two backward-facing toes. The arrangement gives roadrunners X-shaped footprints.

2. Roadrunners are fast—but coyotes are faster.

Greater roadrunner in a desert habitat
RONSAN4D/iStock via Getty Images

According to The Real Roadrunner by Martha Anne Maxon, scientists have clocked the speedy birds running at 15 to 20 miles per hour. Coyotes can run twice as fast as even the fastest roadrunners, but luckily for the birds, coyotes would just as well dine on small rodents, plants, and lizards instead of birds.

3. Flying isn’t the roadrunner’s forte.

Most of the time, roadrunners get around on foot, but taking flight is an option too. Roadrunners will sometimes glide down to Earth from tree branches or canyon rims, but they’re limited to short-distance powered flights because their wings are weak and their muscular legs weigh them down. To get airborne, they usually need a running start.

4. Lizards, seeds, and hummingbirds are on the roadrunner’s menu.

Opportunistic and omnivorous, roadrunners will eat seeds, cactus fruit, snails, snakes, lizards, insects, arachnids, and rodents. Smaller birds are fair game, too. Roadrunners will sometimes lurk around birdfeeders and, with a great leap, snatch songbirds in midair. Wildlife photographer Roy Dunn recently filmed a roadrunner capturing a hummingbird at his backyard feeder.

5. Roadrunners can out-maneuver striking rattlesnakes.

Roadrunners have no fear of venomous rattlesnakes—in fact, they find them delicious. But hunting one takes patience. When the two beasts face off, the roadrunner will fan its wings, which makes the bird look bigger and more threatening. As the snake strikes, the roadrunner nimbly leaps out of the way. This happens over and over until the bird, having learned the snake’s routine, grabs it by the back of the head in mid-strike. Then the roadrunner bashes the snake against the ground until it’s subdued or dead. Since they don’t have talons and their beaks aren’t equipped to rip through flesh, roadrunners swallow snakes whole.

6. Puebloan peoples believe roadrunners ward off dangerous spirits.

Roadrunners are viewed as protective entities among Puebloan peoples in the southwest U.S. Members of these tribes scratched X-shaped symbols designed to look like the birds’ tracks into the earth around dead bodies. The Xs were believed to secure them from evil spirits: malevolent beings would get confused because they couldn’t tell which way the roadrunner who left the “footprints” had been headed. Likewise, roadrunner feathers were placed over cradles to protect the babies inside.

7. Roadrunners do not say “beep! beep!”

Male roadrunners emit cooing noises while courting females and defending territories. Both sexes also use barks and growls to communicate—and for unknown reasons, roadrunners like to produce a long series of clicks by snapping their beaks. The clicks might be a message about one’s territory or a signal to broadcast one’s location to others.

8. Greater roadrunners team up to defend their territories.

Greater roadrunner running across a road
ca2hill/iStock via Getty Images

Considered monogamous, greater roadrunners sometimes pair for life. To help maintain the relationship, males periodically dance for their partners. They’ll also offer food and materials that can be used during nest construction. Both parents take turns incubating their eggs, which are laid in clutches of two to six, and they share chick-raising duties later on. Defending the home turf is another task they perform together. A single pair of roadrunners may occupy a huge territory encompassing up to 250 acres.

9. Roadrunners can conserve energy by lowering their body temperatures.

Roadrunners don’t migrate. On cold nights, the birds reduce their own body temperatures by as much as 15°F, which allows them to burn less energy. To help warm themselves back up, the birds like to sunbathe in the early morning [PDF]. They even raise their feathers to expose their skin directly to the sun’s warming rays.

10. The roadrunner is the state bird of New Mexico.

The greater roadrunner was formally chosen to be the Land of Enchantment’s state bird on March 16, 1949. Since then, the anti-littering organization Keep New Mexico Beautiful, Inc. has adopted an anthropomorphic roadrunner named Dusty as its mascot.

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