Rare Whales Can Live to Nearly 200, Eye Tissue Reveals

July 13, 2006

Scientists have looked into the eyes of rare bowhead whales and learned that some of them can outlive humans by generations—with at least one male pushing 200 years old.

"About 5 percent of the population is over a hundred years old and in some cases 160 to 180 years old," said Jeffrey Bada, a marine chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

"They are truly aged animals, perhaps the most aged animals on Earth," he continued.

Bowheads, also known as Greenland right whales, are baleen whales, meaning that instead of teeth they have bonelike plates that they use to strain food from gulps of water.

The whales live in the Arctic (virtual world: Arctic interactive feature). Adults can reach 60 feet (18 meters) long and weigh more than a hundred tons (89 metric tons).

Stone Harpoons

In the 1990s Craig George, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Wildlife Management in Barrow, was involved in a bowhead whale survey program for the International Whaling Commission.

The regulatory body banned commercial whaling of bowheads in 1946. Inupiat Eskimos, however, have traditionally hunted the whales and are allowed to kill a certain number each year for food and oil (wallpaper: polar bear feasting on a bowhead killed by Inupiat hunters).

George examined several whales killed during an annual Inupiat hunt and found stone harpoons imbedded in their flesh.

According to the Scripps Institution's Bada, "Stone harpoons rapidly disappeared when Europeans went into the Arctic. … That was around 1860, 1870."

"All of a sudden we had whales killed in the 1990s with stone harpoons in them, suggesting they may be a hundred years old."

George contacted Bada, who had done pioneering research a decade earlier showing that bowheads can reach a hundred years or older. At the time, Bada's work had been dismissed as nonsense.

Continued on Next Page >>




NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.