Home / Themes / Marine & Atmospheric / Ming the Clam – a false media furore over world’s oldest creature

 

Recent publicity in the press following news of the discovery of the world’s longest-lived non-colonial animal has questioned the credentials, competence and judgement of scientists at the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University with respect to their research on marine climate change using long-lived bivalve clams. These claims are completely without foundation and are now also propagating significant errors of fact. The nature of these articles demonstrate the way the Press can frequently misunderstand the science, and their misrepresentations can lead to a culture of mistrust of scientists within society.

Sclerochronology, the counting of rings on the hard tissues of invertebrates, enables scientists to reconstruct past climatic conditions and so help us understand present changes

Sclerochronology, the counting of rings on the hard tissues of invertebrates, enables scientists to reconstruct past climatic conditions and so help us understand present changes

The clam in question was dredged in 2006 during a research cruise in Icelandic coastal waters that formed part of a project investigating climate changes over the last 1000 years. These clams contain very significant records of marine climate changes embedded in their shells and the scientists involved are the world-leading experts in extracting these records.

In order to undertake the research, specimens of live bivalves, in addition to dead shells, are collected. The numbers taken are restricted and increasingly selected by divers rather than dredged from the seabed in order to ensure minimal impact on the populations.

The longest-lived clam was collected along with many others in this way and, as it is impossible to age the clams until their shells have been sectioned, there was no indication of its extreme age until after it had been killed.

The notion that the Bangor scientists knew in advance that it was the longest-lived species and then deliberately and in a pre-meditated way killed it is patently ridiculous. The same species of clam are caught commercially and eaten daily; anyone who has eaten clam chowder in New England has probably eaten flesh from this species, many of which are likely several hundred years old.  Based on previous information this species was believed to live for around 100 years. Preliminary analysis of the longest-lived clam by Bangor University academics found it to be between 405 and 410 years. Recent further study of this clam, however, has revealed that it is definitively 507 years old.

It is statistically inconceivable that longer lived individuals of the species do not exist in Icelandic waters as they seem to provide the ideal conditions for extreme longevity; clams with lifetimes in excess of 100 years have been found both in the Irish Sea and the North Sea.

So why do these clams live so long? The Bangor scientists are intrigued to find out and believe that the clams may have evolved exceptionally effective defences which hold back the destructive ageing processes that normally occur. If, in this type of clam – called a ‘Quahog’ – 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 understand the processes of ageing in a range of organisms, including humans.