The average life expectancy in the United States these days is nearly 79 years. As animal species go, humans are pretty hearty, especially given all these fancy medicines we’ve developed. But we’re not the only ones who hope to live past 80 (or 90). Other birds and mammals and fish and microbes manage to live longer. Some a lot longer.
1. Giant tortoises
The Aldabra tortoise, found on a tiny atoll north of Madagascar, can easily live past 100 years, and it’s thought that the oldest in captivity died at age 250 (that’s the upper limit; other records point to an age of at least 150). Who knows how long the Aldabra might live, though. Accurate records of the species’ age haven’t been kept, partly because the tortoises being studied have outlived the scientists researching them.
2. The immortal jellyfish
Scientists discovered Turritopsis dohrnii back in 1883, but it wasn’t until more than a century had passed that they discovered it was technically capable of living forever. That’s right: When faced with stressors like starvation or injury, the jellyfish reverts to its youngest form. Its cells transform into other cells, and it transforms into a cyst. That blob then produces a bunch of baby jellyfish, or polyps, all of which are genetically identical to the original. This method of self-preservation has actually turned it into an annoying invasive species.
3. Ocean quahog
These large clams found in the North Atlantic look unremarkable. More people have probably tasted them than seen them, given that they’re a frequent chowder ingredient. But when their rings are analyzed, it becomes clear that quahogs are some of the longest-lived ocean dwellers. In fact, a clam nicknamed Ming harvested in 2006 turned out to be 507 years old. And given that Ming turned up in a random sample of 200 clams, its likely that many others are at least as old, if not older. And you may have eaten them.
Move aside, coelacanth. The tuatara, a reptile found in New Zealand, is also known as a living fossil. Its closest relatives are extinct, and it has a vestigial third eye on the top of its head. (Skin grows over it, but the “eye” can still detect light and dark.) They’re slow-growing, not maturing until the ages of 13-20. They can stop breathing for up to an hour, and they’re not slowed down by cold. Given all of this, one of the least remarkable things about tuataras is that they can live up to a century in the wild.
With parrots, we skirt the edges of the human lifespan. Macaws, for example, can live some 60 years in the wild. But some have sailed past the 100-year mark, most notably Charlie, who was reportedly owned by Winston Churchill. Taught to spew obscenities against Hitler and the Nazis, Charlie was a fixture at a British garden center for years. As with giant tortoises, it can be difficult to substantiate birth dates for centenarian parrots—and researchers have cast doubt on Charlie’s provenance—so the exact details are murky.
6. Bowhead whale
The bowhead whale is second only in size to the blue whale—but it’s apparently No. 1 among mammals in terms of sheer lifespan. Scientists have discovered at least three of the whales are 135 to 172 years old, with a fourth clocking in at 211 years old. They figured this out by studying the creatures’ eye lenses, and by finding ivory and stone harpoon points buried in other whales. Those tips haven’t been used since the 1880s. These discoveries doubled the known lifespan for the creatures.
This beautiful, domesticated carp variety lives an average of 50 years. But depending on the quality of their care and genetic variables, koi have been known to live for more than a century. Hanako, a fish that died in 1977, was believed to be 226 years old. Scientists measured her age by examining the microscopic rings on her scales.
You’ll likely outlive most flamingos, but not all of them. In captivity, they usually live some 40 years, about 10 years longer than they survive in the wild. But Greater, a flamingo at the Adelaide Zoo in Australia, made it to age 83.The animal’s gender wasn’t known, but Greater managed to survive both World War II and a late-in-life attack from younger flamingos at the zoo. Sadly, complications from age led to the bird's demise.
Deep, deep in the ocean you can find some of the longest-lived creatures ever. These viruses, bacteria, and assorted fungi have such slow metabolisms that scientists hesitate to even call them "alive" in the conventional sense of the word (the term "zombie" came up). And yet some have likely existed for millions of years, only reproducing every 10 millennia.
All images courtesy of Thinkstock.