If you have ever wondered what the secret to longevity is, look no further than species that have inhabited Earth for centuries. Many of them are ocean-dwelling species, but a few land animals have evolved to live longer than any human can. Extraordinary lifespans are supported by a variety of factors which include slow metabolism, cool and calm environments, and limited predators.
Scientists consider long-living species to be a rare glimpse into life on Earth long ago. Some islands, like the Galapagos, an archipelago of volcanic islands, are home to many endemic species that were studied by Charles Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle. One of those ancient species, the giant tortoise, is one of the longest living species on Earth. All over the world, you can find species that have miraculous lifespans.
Here are seven wild species that live to 100 or more:
1. Black Coral
Coral reefs are the cornerstone of a healthy ocean ecosystem—they only take up about 1% of the ocean floor but host an estimated 25% of all ocean species! Coral reefs are made up of tiny organisms called polyps. The polyps are soft-bodied but secrete limestone skeletons for support. Deep-sea corals found off the coast of Hawaii have been discovered as the oldest marine organisms on record. Marine scientists discovered a 4,265-year-old black coral and a particular colony of gold coral that is estimated to be 2,742 years old.
2. Rougheye Rockfish
Found in coastal waters from California to Japan, rockfish are a colorful group of more than 120 species in the genus Sebastes. Some rockfish species can only live for a few decades, but one species, the rougheye rockfish, can live for more than 200 years. Rougheye rockfish typically live at depths between 500 and 1,500 feet. They are found near the seafloor around caves and crevices. Slow metabolism and a cool environment allow this species to be one of the longest living fish in the ocean.
3. Greenland shark
Located 7,000 feet deep in the icy waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oceans, you’ll find the ancestral home of the world’s longest-living vertebrate. The discovery of a 400-year-old female Greenland shark set the record for the oldest living vertebrate. The Greenland shark is a slow-moving apex predator that is estimated to live for a minimum of 272 years, with an average lifespan of 390 years and a maximum lifespan of 512 years.
Estimating the age of sharks usually involves a process of studying the layers of calcified bone structures or fin spines. The Greenland shark is unique in that it is a very “soft” shark with minimal bone structures. Scientists had to borrow a technique usually used when studying the age of whales to solve the mystery of their age. Transparent eye tissue of a Greenland shark was analyzed using radiocarbon dating to measure the metabolically inactive layers which had been added throughout the shark’s lifetime. This groundbreaking research helped uncover this species’ centuries-long lifespan.
4. Immortal Jellyfish
The Turritopsis dohrinni is a rare jellyfish species, commonly referred to as the immortal jellyfish, as they might be the only species that don’t have a natural limit to their lifespan. Found mostly in the Mediterranean, these jellyfish start life as larvae, where they transform into polyps on the seafloor. These polyps then produce free-swimming medusas, or jellyfish. A mature Turritopsis dohrnii can turn back into polyps if they are physically damaged or starving, which allows them to revert to an earlier life stage to begin life again. When a mature jellyfish dies, it will begin to decay on the ocean floor. Its cells, however, reaggregate back into polyps and produce new jellyfish, making them “immortal”!
5. Ocean Quahog
The title of oldest animal in the world, unsurprisingly, belongs to a marine species. Ocean quahog clams (Arctica islandica) broke the Guinness World Record in 2013 when the reexamination of age marks formed in the quahog’s valves placed the clam at 507 years old! The Ocean Quahog is the oldest non-colonial animal in the world. Colonial animals, like corals, can live up to 4,000 years, but they aren’t a single animal like the quahog is.
The 507-year-old ocean quahog was discovered in 2006 when researchers captured about 200 other ocean quahogs to study their lifespans. From the deep Icelandic seabed, scientists found this quahog that would eventually gain the nickname “Ming” when researchers discovered that the clam came into existence around the year 1499 when the Ming Dynasty ruled China (from 1368 to 1644).
Making our way out of the ocean, we find a variety of land-based species that have outstanding life spans. Found only on 32 islands off the northeast coast of New Zealand’s North Island and in the Marlborough Sounds is the tuatara. These rare reptiles are a nocturnal species that keep growing until they are about 35 years old. A tuatara’s average life span is about 60 years, but they probably live up to 100 years. They are the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived in the age of the dinosaurs. Only two species of tuatara exist today, and they have much the same form as their ancient ancestors that thrived 200 million years ago.
7. Giant Tortoise
In the 1830s, Charles Darwin was the naturalist upon the HMS Beagle that sailed from Delaware to the Galapagos Islands. His experiences and observations helped him develop the theory of evolution through natural selection. One of the last animals that existed when Darwin visited the Galapagos was a giant tortoise named Harriet, who passed away in 2006, but lived to be 175 years old. On the South Atlantic Island of St. Helena is Jonathan, a giant tortoise that is the oldest known living land animal, who will celebrate his 190th birthday this year.
Part of the Republic of Ecuador, the Galapagos islands are distributed on either side of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, surrounding the center of the Western Hemisphere. The Galapagos supports 25 native species of reptiles, 19 of which are endemic. Reptiles are cold-blooded, have a slow metabolism and have skin that offers sun protection, factors making them suitable for long life. Without many mammals on the islands, reptiles on the archipelago encounter little predation and competition, making them easier for those traveling to the Galapagos to see and enjoy them at very close range.
The giant tortoise is a symbol of the Galapagos Islands. In fact, the word Galapagos is Spanish for “shape of a saddle,” which is what many tortoise shells actually resemble. Classic Galapagos: The Natural Habitat Experience provides travelers with a full interpretive experience and opportunities to explore an assortment of unique and gentle creatures that are found here. Spend a night in wild tortoise terrain at a private camp on Santa Cruz and enjoy secluded snorkeling off the island’s waters, encountering inquisitive sea lions, sea turtles, penguins and schools of vividly colored fish. With the world to explore, why not visit an island made for explorers, naturalists and environmentalists!