National Geographic Daily News
A photo of ming the clam.

Shell valves from a specimen of Arctica islandica that was found to have lived for approximately 507 years are pictured here. The creature's death has generated some consternation about marine researchers that looks a bit overblown.

Photograph courtesy Bangor University

Samantha Larson

for National Geographic

Published November 16, 2013

Consternation over the death of the world's oldest-recorded animal, a 507-year-old clam nicknamed Ming, has earned marine researchers unhappy headlines worldwide.

But a closer look at the story—"Clam-gate," as the BBC called it—finds the tempest over Ming a bit overblown. (Also see "Clams: Not Just for Chowder.")

News of the clam's death, first noted in 2007, took on a life of its own this week after researchers led by James Scourse, from the United Kingdom's Bangor University, reanalyzed its age and announced the 507-year estimate.

Contrary to news reports, the researchers say they did not kill the elderly clam for the ironic-seeming purpose of finding out its age.

"This particular animal was one of about 200 that were collected live from the Icelandic shelf in 2006," explains climate scientist Paul Butler from the same U.K. university, who, along with Scourse, dredged up the clam as part of a research project to investigate climate change over the past thousand years.

All 200 clams were killed when they were frozen on board to take them home. They didn't find out how old Ming was until they were back in the lab and looked at its shell under a microscope.

Ming Dynasty Survivor

When Ming first made headlines in 2007, the researchers said they thought it was about 405 years old, earning it even then the title of the oldest-known animal.

After the more recent reanalysis, they realized that the bivalve was even more impressive than they had thought.

In the year Ming was born, Leonardo da Vinci was at work on the "Mona Lisa," the first recorded epidemic of smallpox hit the New World, and the Ming dynasty ruled China (hence the name). Ming was 52 years old when Queen Elizabeth I took the throne.

Clam Age Counting

The researchers determined Ming's age by counting the number of bands in its shell. This type of clam, the ocean quahog, grows a new band every year. (Also see "Giant Clam.")

The 100-year age discrepancy resulted from the 2007 analysis examining a part of Ming's shell where some of the bands were so narrow they couldn't be separated from each other.

Scourse, a marine geologist, says that the new age has been verified against radiocarbon dating and is "pretty much without error."

Clams Don't Carry Birth Certificates

When Scourse and Butler dredged up the live clam, they had what appeared to be an everyday quahog, an animal that could fit into the palm of their hand.

As Madelyn Mette, a Ph.D. student at Iowa State University in Ames who also studies these clams, explains, "Once they reach a certain age, they don't get a lot bigger per year … If you have a large clam, you can't always tell if it's 100 years old or 300 years old, because there's very little difference in size."

Scourse points out that the 200 clams they sampled represented a very small fraction of the world's entire clam population. For that reason, even if Ming was the oldest animal that we knew, the chances that it was actually the oldest quahog out there in the ocean depths are "infinitesimally small."

How About Some Chowdah?

In fact, it isn't unthinkable that someone might eat a clam of Ming's age for lunch—ocean quahogs from the North Atlantic are one of the main species used in clam chowder.

If nothing else, Ming's sacrifice should help out Scourse and Butler's research, looking at long-term climate impacts on sea life over the past few centuries.

"The 507-year-old is at the top end of the series," Scourse says. "From this we can get annual records of marine climate change, which so far we've never been able to get from the North Atlantic."

9 comments
Ellen Wanamaker
Ellen Wanamaker

Yes!! Finally a story that explains the science and ignores the hype!  Thank you National Geographic.

Magin D'Ville
Magin D'Ville

I have no trust in National Geographic anymore... ever since I advised Albert Yu Lin Min of where Genghis Khan's tomb was only to be ignored by the big fat phony.

Stanley Kerns
Stanley Kerns

Well, I know for a fact that the living animal found most close to the South Pole was killed to see if it had any parasites.

Stan

Dan Cosgrove
Dan Cosgrove

Out of curiosity, what's the scale in the picture of the Quahogs shown?  I've enjoyed more than my fair share of little-necks, cherrystones & chowders, but...how big is a 507 year-old clam?

Magin D'Ville
Magin D'Ville

Its at (45, 108) in the Gobi Desert by the way... don't bother advising Nat Geo of it though... they're too busy digging up ancient teacups in Northern Mongolia.

Paul Butler
Paul Butler

@Dan Cosgrove As Peter says it's about 87mm on its longest axis.  Arctica islandica can get bigger - up to 120mm in warmer waters near the coast, but these are not as long-lived as the ones off Iceland, which seem to have a lower metabolism in colder waters.  

There isn't much variability in the biggest Icelandic specimens, and some were slightly bigger than the 507-years specimen, but didn't live as long (ie "only" 300+ years). 

Robert Madore
Robert Madore

@Dan Cosgrove I was wondering the same thing. I live on the North East coast and see giant clams after storms. Now I am wondering if I made stuffed clams out of a relative or two.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Magin D'Ville I thought Genghis Khan's tomb has never been located exactly. However, even if you are correct the Mongolians are quite right not to disturb him and leave him resting in peace. 

What would you see Magin? Are you advocating that his tomb be opened, invaded and destroyed by self-interested treasure- and glory-seekers operating under the umbrella of 'qualified and trained archaeologists' and the media - "but only for 'scientific purposes?'" We saw that with the Titanic. I'm sure the NGS don't advocate such vandalism. Just leave Temujin in peace.

Peter Loring Borst
Peter Loring Borst

I found the uncropped picture elsewhere and it lists the length at 87 mm or about 3.5 inches. Just a regular clam!

Pete

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