Ever wondered which animals live the longest? Or how old the oldest animals is?
Believe it or not, there are sharks alive today that were around when William Shakespeare was writing his best works! In fact, there are a number of species of animals with lifespans that put the oldest humans to shame.
Below we list the 12 vertebrate animals that live the longest, with lifespans of anywhere up to 500 years. We’ve decided to look at vertebrates only for this article (as that’s our specialty), but there are a number of other forms of life of earth – particularly microorganisms, and sponges – that have been proven to live for thousands, or even millions of years.
For example, some endoliths (microorganisms that live inside rock, coral and animal shells), have extremely long lifespans, metabolizing slowly with a generation time of around 10,000 years. And in July 2020 marine biologists discovered aerobic microorganisms beneath the ocean floor that they dated to 101.5 million years old.
When it comes to animals (rather than microorganisms), glass sponges found in the Southern Ocean and the East China Sea have been determined by scientists to be about 15,000 years old.
And then there is Turritopsis dohrnii – known as the ‘Immortal jellyfish’. This unique animal is able to cycle from a mature adult life stage to an immature polyp life stage again and again, which means that – in theory at least – it is biologically immortal. In reality, the immortal jellyfish get injured and eaten like other animals in the wild, so is not truly immortal.
With this context in mind, here’s our list of 12 of the vertebrate animals with the longest lifespans. For each species of long-living animals below we list both the estimated average age of the species, and the estimated longest-living known individual animal, where this is known. Sources are provided for all ages:
12 Vertebrate animals that live the longest
Oldest known age: 512
Average lifespan: 200
According to a 2016 scientific study, the Greenland shark is the longest living vertebrate in the world, by some distance. Using eye lens radiocarbon testing, a 5 meter Greenland shark was found to be 392 years old ± 120 years. This puts the age range of the shark tested at between 272 and a whopping 512 years old!
Living in the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans, the Greenland shark grows very slowly in the cold waters, at an estimated 1 cm a year, and doesn’t reach full maturity until about 100 years old. They are scavengers, eating a variety of fish and birds, though due to population decline the shark is sadly now considered near-threatened.
Oldest known age: 255
Average lifespan: 150
Tortoises come in all shapes and sizes, with their lifespan generally linked to their size. The average age a tortoise can live to is 90 to 150 years, depending on their species, with the giant tortoises taking the crown of the oldest terrestrial animals.
Adwaita was an Aldabra giant tortoise who died at Alipore Zoo in India an estimated age of 255 in 2006. The oldest currently living terrestrial animal is thought to be Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise living on the island of Saint Helena, and reported to be 188 years old.
Tortoises tend to live much longer than turtles. Want to know more differences between turtles and tortoises?
Oldest known age: 245
Average lifespan: 149
The orange roughy – also known as the red roughy, slimehead, or deep sea perch – is a relatively large deep-sea fish weighing up to 7 kg. Found in deep waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans the fish is a bright red colour which fades to a yellowish-orange after death.
The orange roughy is notable for its extraordinary lifespan. When they were first commercial fished in the 1970s their lifespan was thought to be 30 years, but new evidence has come to light they’re now acknowledged to live to exceptional ages – such as one orange roughy caught near Tasmania that was aged at 250 years.
Oldest known age: 226
Average lifespan: 40
Koi fish are a domesticated variety of the common carp, native to the Caspian Sea, and can grow up to 1 meter long. Now found around the world, koi are particularly common as ornamental fish in ponds and artificial rock pools.
With an average lifespan of 40 years in the wild, there are many cases of individual koi vastly outliving this average age. One particular Japanese koi – named Hanako – died in 1977, after which a study based on the growth rings of her scales put her age at 226. It’s worth noting that there is some controversy about this method of dating koi, so the result is not universally accepted.
Oldest known age: 211
Average lifespan: 100
Found in the arctic regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, the Bowhead whale – also known as the Arctic whale – is the longest living mammal on earth by some way.
Using chemical evidence from the whales’ eyes and teeth, together with dating harpoon tips lodged in their flesh, the average bowhead whale has been found to have a lifespan of over 100 years. One specific whale was dated by this method to be 211 years old at the time it died.
Oldest known age: 205
Average lifespan: Unknown
The rougheye rockfish is named after the ten or so spines that grow on its lower eyelid. Living in deep waters in the North Pacific and growing to 0.8 meters, they feed on shrimps, crabs, and other fish.
Rougheye rockfish are recognised as being amongst the longest living of all fish and have been known to reach an age of 205 years
Oldest known age: 200
Average lifespan: 100
The tuatara is a lizard-like reptile endemic to New Zealand, and is the last of a type of a creature that originated during the Triassic period, having diverged from other reptiles around 250 million years ago.
Tuatara can live to well over 100 years, with Henry, a tuatara in captivity at New Zealand’s Southland Museum, mating for the first time at the age of 111 with an 80-year-old female to father 11 babies. Their longevity has been the subject of a scientific investigation, and during genome sequencing tuatara were shown to contain more genes to protect against aging than any other vertebrate.
Oldest known age: 150
Average lifespan: 100
Sturgeons are referred to as ‘primitive fishes’ as they remain almost unchanged since their earliest fossils, which date to around 200 million years ago at the end of the Triassic period. The fish are native to subtropical, temperate and sub-Arctic lakes, rivers and coastlines of Eurasia and North America.
Ranging 2 to 7 meters long, sturgeon are amongst the longest living fishes, living to 100 years on average. Female lake sturgeon are the longest living type of sturgeon and can live to be 150 years old.
Oldest known age: possibly 121
Average lifespan: 35
Macaws are the largest and most vibrantly coloured members of the parrot family, and found in ranges across North and South America. In the wild macaws have a life expectancy of around 35 years, though live much longer in captivity due to the lack of predation. It’s thought that the size of the macaw is linked to its longevity – the larger the bird is, the longer its lifespan.
Whilst it’s common for pet macaws to live to 70 or 80, it’s possible they can live much longer. One blue-and-yellow macaw called Charlie is said to have been hatched in 1899 and was once the pet of Winston Churchill, though this claim has been refuted by Churchill’s estate. Charlie supposedly celebrated her 120th birthday at a garden center in Reigate, England in 2019.
Oldest known age: 106
Average lifespan: 60
Native to New Zealand and Australia, these eels are a traditional food source for the Maori people. The longfin eel averages an age of around 60 years, and the oldest living longfin eel ever recorded died at 106 years old. As with the Greenland shark, these eels grow extremely slowly, which helps them reach such old ages.
Oldest known age: 86
Average lifespan: 60
Elephants are the largest land animals in the world, and have an impressive average lifespan of around 60 years.
The oldest individual elephant we’re aware of – confirmed by Guinness World Records – was Ling Wang, an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), who died on 26 February 2003 aged 86, at Taipei Zoo, Taiwan.
Oldest known age: 83
Average lifespan: 35
In the wild greater flamingos have an average lifespan of 35 years, and whilst in captivity the birds generally live to around 60 years old. The oldest known greater flamingo – named Greater – died at Adelaide Zoo in January 2014 at the age of 83.
And that’s your lot for our pick of the world’s longest-living animals. What do you think – did any surprise you? Please let us know your thoughts or any experiences you have of seeing these animals in the wild in the comments section below!
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