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Ferrebeekeeper has written a lot about how long trees can live. Individual yew trees can survive for thousands of years, bristlecone pines can live even longer, and clonal entities like Pando, a super-colony of quaking aspen, can potentially live for hundreds of thousands of years. Likewise colonial animals (coral, gorgonians, tubeworms, and so forth) tend to live the longest—although the constituent individuals come and go. Yet colonial animals frustrate our selfish human perception of the world. When we talk about an organism we mean an individual, and in this category, the world’s longest living animal comes as a surprise!
As you read this, somewhere, off the coast of Greenland or Virginia there is a smug little clam which was alive when Oliver Cromwell was in diapers and before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Arctica islandica, the “Ocean Quahog” or “Black Clam,” is believed to live for more than 400 years! The little bivalve laughs at nations, dynasties, and vampires as short-lived.
The venerable mollusks do not live flashy or extravagant lives. They live under a light drift of substrate on Atlantic coastal shelves at a depth of 25 to 100 meters (75 to 300 feet) although they have been found much deeper. The species is very successful and ranges from coastal Portugal up around Iceland down to the Carolinas. The little clams feed on plankton suspended in the water and they only grow to about 12 cm (5 inches) in diameter. Amazingly these Methuselah mollusks are harvested by dredge for the dinner table, so if, like me, you love spaghetti alle vongole, you might have inadvertently eaten something that lived longer than the United States has been around!
The secret behind the small bivalve’s longevity is unclear. Some scientists have speculated that antioxidant enzyme activities and the avoidance of waste accumulation are partially responsible for the clam’s age but the British Society for Research on Aging somewhat dryly remarks that, “Despite interest in this clam’s longevity and the measurement of growth increment series, little research into how this species has apparently managed to defy the onset of the ageing processes has been conducted.”
This shines a poor light on our priorities. Instead of grasping the molecular secrets of the longest living animals on Earth, the people who allocate resources to various things have decided to buy learjets and build a bunch of hokey Mcmansions for themselves. Argh! Maybe the clams’ sense of frugal austerity is what gives them such staying power.