Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Greenland shark - long-lived behemoth

In nature, large animals tend to be long-lived.  There are exceptions (sponges and clams are among the oldest living animals, and some corals may live over 4,000 years), but whales were the longest-lived vertebrates we knew of. One bowhead whale made it to an estimated age of 211 before (of course) a harpoon ended its career.
Now we find a fish - a shark, to be exact - which lives a low-energy lifestyle in deep cold waters of the Arctic might be the oldest vertebrate anywhere.  The sleeper sharks are probably the world's biggest sharks after the huge filter-feeders, the  whale shark and basking shark.  The Greenland shark, (Somniosus microcephalus) records its age in accumulating tissue layers in the eyeball.  One shark recently tested, a 5-meter giant, was approximately 392 years old. Even more outrageously, that may be the average for Greenland sharks. Somewhere in the dark seas may be a shark 500 years old.
There is some difference of opinion in how many species of sleepers there are (one figure is 17), but they are widespread. The oft-cited website Fish Base says they are found in Arctic, Sub-Arctic, and Sub-Antarctic, waters, plus continental shelves in cold seas, and even in tropical waters.  Pacific sleepers may reach 8m (per a sighting from the submersible Nautile off Japan)  and maybe bigger: if the huge fish sighted by the crew of the submersible Deepstar 4000 in 1968 was, as some authorities think, a sleeper shark, it was estimated at over 10m, maybe over 11.  (If they are wrong - and the crew of two men reported bigger eyes and different tail shape - there is a still-unknown fish the size of a bus out there.)

Kilometers beneath the icy seas off Greenland, the great shark hunts prey near the seafloor. (Image NOAA)

So a tip of the hat to the Greenland shark - and to the animal alive today that might have seen the first post-Columbus Europeans to reach North America sail by.


3 comments:

Nathan said...

Cool article. (I would humbly suggest that eyewitness testimony of large animals is pretty unreliable...)

Still, An average age of over 200 years. Wow.

Can Crusher said...
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Matt Bille said...

Thanks, Nathan! I agree, but still... cue Jaws music...