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

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.

 

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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