A recently identified 512-year-old Greenland shark may be the world’s oldest living vertebrate. Although scientists discovered the 18-foot fish in the North Atlantic months ago, its age was only recently revealed in a study published in the journal Science. Greenland sharks have the longest lifespan of any vertebrate animal, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the species would boast the oldest living individual vertebrate as well. Nonetheless, the fact that this creature may have been born as early as 1505 is remarkable. “It definitely tells us that this creature is extraordinary and it should be considered among the absolute oldest animals in the world,” said marine biologist Julius Nelson, whose research team studied the shark’s longevity.
To determine the shark’s age, scientists used a mathematical model that analyzes the lens and cornea of a shark’s eye and links size of the shark to its age. Greenland sharks grow at a rate of about 1 centimeter per year, which allowed scientists to estimate a particular shark’s age. The ability to measure the age of this mysterious shark is relatively new. “Fish biologists have tried to determine the age and longevity of Greenland sharks for decades, but without success,” said Steven Campana, a shark expert from the University of Iceland. “Given that this shark is the apex predator (king of the food chain) in Arctic waters, it is almost unbelievable that we didn’t know whether the shark lives for 20 years, or for 1,000 years.”
The Greenland shark thrives in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Despite its considerable size, comparable to that of a great white shark, the Greenland shark is a scavenger and has never been observed hunting. Its diet primarily consists of fish, though remains of reindeer, polar bear, moose, and seals have been found in the species’ stomachs. To cope with life in deep water, the living tissues of a Greenland shark contains high levels of trimethylamine N-oxide, which makes the meat toxic. However, when the flesh is fermented, it can be consumed, as it is in Iceland as a dish known as Kæstur hákarl.