Ming the Mollusc

Image: Pixabay

I thought I’d do something different today and discuss one of the contenders for the oldest organism on our planet. So, let me spin you a yarn of a mollusc called Ming, cited as the oldest individual animal for which its age can be accurately determined.

Our story begins back in 2006 when researchers fished up the animal- known as an ocean quahog- from the seas around Iceland‘s northern coast. It was one of two hundred ocean quahogs fished up by the researchers from Bangor University in Wales, as part of a project to investigate the impact climate change has had over the last thousand years.

Once these clams had been taken up from the seabed, the next step was to determine their age. Like with tree rings, there are rings on a clam’s shell which you can count to determine its age, as a new ring is added by the clam each successive summer. These bands can be found on the hinge region of the shell.

So, with that’s said, let us return to Ming. I should mention at this point that ‘Ming’ actually one of two nicknames the clam acquired- the other being Háfrun, an Icelandic female name meaning ‘mystery of the sea’, which it was subsequently given by Icelandic researchers taking part in the expedition.

A first count came in 2007, placing the quahog at 405 years old- which would have given it a birth year of 1601 CE. However, this was pushed back as a result of a re-estimate in 2013, which put it at 507 years old and meant that it would have been born in 1499– comfortably within the period of the Ming dynasty in China, for which it was named during the wave of excitement and interest about its advanced age.

This second estimate was done by carbon-dating, rather than the previous method of using the number of rings on its shell, and was considered by some to be accurate to around one to two years. So, although we can’t be 100% sure when the quahog was born, the 1499 date seems to be generally accepted.

Now we get to the controversial bit. Sometime after being dredged up, Ming died. However, the tricky part comes in pinning down when and why exactly this happened. Some maintain that the researchers were the cause of death in 2007 as a result of opening its shell to make the original estimate of its age. However, this has been contested. Instead, an article on the story by the National Geographic in 2013 maintained the view that Ming was already dead by the time it came back to the lab. If this is true, Ming was killed along with its 199 colleagues as a result of researchers freezing the organisms for storage on the journey back to shore. Whatever really happened, Ming was dead.

Although Ming (c.1499- 2007) will not be increasing in age for obvious reasons, it has still been valuable to research. For instance, accessing its growth rings allows scientists to determine what the temperature of the ocean was every year for the past five hundred years- invaluable data when considering the impact of anthropogenic climate change. In addition, it might contribute to ageing research– after all, if we can find out what caused Ming to live to such an advanced age, perhaps it can be applied to humans.

So, that’s Ming the Mollusc, also known as Háfrun. To finish, I thought I’d give you some perspective on its great age. When Ming was born in 1499, Leonardo da Vinci was still beavering away on the Mona Lisa and the voyage of Columbus had only happened seven years earlier. Even if we don’t end up learning anything that will be applicable to humans, it certainly shows how varied the natural world can be.