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.

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What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

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

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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iStock

No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
iStock

They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
iStock

It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
iStock

The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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