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Sad news mars this bleak wintry day. The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved Australian lungfish “Granddad” has passed away. Granddad enjoyed basking sluggishly in his shallow pool until he beguiled viewers into not paying close attention to him, then he would rise to the top of his puddle and take a deep gasping (and very audible) slurp of air. Lungfish are said to be among the most endearing of pet fish and Granddad enjoyed it when aquarium keepers gently petted him. He also loved eating a nutritious vegetable paste or clams or shrimp… although his particular favorite was “worm Wednesday”. His diet changed several times during his tenure at the aquarium, as keepers learned more about how to look after him and as standards for lungfish husbandry progressed. In his early days, he ate crayfish gathered from the pond in a local Chicago cemetery!
With his muscular pectoral and dorsal fins, Grandad was quite magnificent, in a torpid way–like an intelligent cucumber spattered with mud and gold. At the time of his passing, he was the oldest fish in any public zoo or aquarium in the world. Shedd acquired him (as a full grown adult) in 1933. After a lengthy trip across the Pacific, he traveled across the United States in 3 days in a specially outfitted life-support railroad car.
A revealing historical passage from the Shedd aquarium’s lengthy and moving obituary describes the excitement over Granddad’s acquisition, “In anticipation of overflow crowds from the soon-to-open Century of Progress International Exposition just south of Shedd, aquarium director Walter Chute had written to the director of the Sydney aquarium with a wish list of fresh- and saltwater species. ‘We are, of course, particularly desirous of securing one or two specimens of Neoceratodus forsteri,’ he wrote, using the lungfish’s scientific name.”
Although these days I am closer to the African lungfish who live at the Bronx zoo, I saw Grandad back in the 90s when I lived in South Chicago and I was duly impressed by him. Indeed, in a memorable conversation during college, a group of my closest friends and I were talking about what we would wish to have as accessories if we were action figures. Although my buddies came up with lots of cool plasma guns, miniature vehicles, and humorous inside joke items, I feel I won the conversation by saying “lungfish.” Reading about Granddad only reinforces this feeling (although possibly these days, the “Wayne” action figure would have an avant-garde flounder rather than a clever lungfish).
Although Grandad was only around a century old when he left this world, lungfish have been here a lot longer. The sarcopterygians are nearly 350 million years old. Living Sarcopterygians include only the coelocanths and lungfish (although all amphibians, reptile, birds, and mammals descend directly from them and could arguably be considered Sarcopterygians). After 8 years of writing, I have been running out of things to say about catfish. Once again, Granddad reminds me that there is an even wider and crazier world of fish out there.
For example, did you know that lungfish have the largest genome among the vertebrates? It takes a lot more information to produce a “Grandad” then it does to make Einstein or Rihanna! Although we will miss our long-lived friend (and his mate, who died in 1980), he is survived by a passel of younger Neoceratodus forsteri, who can still be visited at the aquarium. Additionally the Australians are very protective of their dear lungfish. Although they are rare, the government watches after their habitat quite carefully. With any luck the lungfish in the Shedd aquarium will be around another 84 years, and the ones in Queensland will last another 350 million. Maybe we can take them with us to the stars and start some entirely new tetrapod lineages!
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.