Clam found off Iceland was 507 - "the oldest animal on Earth", until British scientists killed it

Ming (Rex)

When a clam was dredged up from the bottom of the sea of Iceland, a team of scientists eagerly cracked it open - killing the oldest animal in the world.

The mollusc was 507 years old - when it was born, Michelangelo was just about to start work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The clam has previously been thought to be a mere 400 years old - that alone won it a place in the Guinness Book of Records, beating its previous holder by some margin, a 220-year-old Arctica clam found in 1982 in American waters.

It was dredged up in 2007, and the scientists admit they simply miscounted its rings - but their initial error makes the clam dubbed “Ming” an even more impressive discovery.

“We got it wrong the first time. Maybe we were a bit hasty publishing our findings back then. But we are absolutely certain that we’ve got the right age now,” Paul Butler of Bangor University said, in an interview with Science Nordic.

It’s not known why the clams live to such incredible ages - and members of the Bangor University team have said Ming might offer an insight into resisting old age.

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Ming was “aged” by a team of Bangor University scientists -  sclerochronologists who study the growth and age of clams using annual growth lines in the shell, in much the same way as dendrochronologists study the growth of trees using tree-rings. 

Sadly, the process of opening clams to study their “growth lines” is fatal. The clam was named Ming after the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which was in power when it was born.

Thankfully, the animal’s “new” age doesn’t make the name Ming inappropriate - the dynasty lasted 300 years.The scientists’ mistake was simply to count rings in the wrong place, Butler admits.

“On the outside, the mollusc shell is curved, and that makes it difficult to get the right angle for measuring and counting the growth rings,” says Butler. “The growth rings are also better protected inside the hinge ligaments.”

It is very likely that longer lived individuals of the species remain to be found, Butler said at the time.

Although Icelandic waters seem to provide the ideal conditions for extreme longevity, clams with lifetimes well in excess of 200 years have been found both in the Irish Sea and the North Sea.

The Bangor scientists  believe that the clams may have evolved exceptionally effective defences which hold back the destructive ageing processes that normally occur.

 "If, in Arctica islandica, evolution has created a model of successful resistance to the damage of ageing, it is possible that an investigation of the tissues of these real life Methuselahs might help us to understand the processes of ageing,” said team member Chris Richardson. .

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