Ahamed has an MBA and worked in document control for years. He enjoys writing and has freelanced and blogged across the internet.
What Is the Oldest Living Creature on Earth?
If a human lives to the age of 80, they are considered to be of sufficiently advanced age. However, many long-lived species regard 80 years as mere infancy. Let's take a look at some of the planet's oldest living creatures, in a top 10 list that moves in order of life length—from immortal to 120 years. This article covers the following creatures with remarkable lifespans:
- Immortal Jellyfish
- Prehistoric Nematodes
- 11,000-Year-Old Glass Sponge
- 4,265-Year-Old Black Coral
- 520-Year-Old Greenland Shark
- 507-Year-Old Quahog Clam
- 255-Year-Old Giant Tortoise
- 226-Year-Old Koi Fish
- 211-Year-Old Bowhead Whale
- 120-Year-Old Tuatara
1. Immortal Jellyfish
What better way to kick off a list of incredibly old creatures than with a species that might literally be immortal? The Turritopsis dohrnii—unofficially known as the "immortal jellyfish"—is without question one of the most unique creatures on the planet. As far as we know, it's the only one who can theoretically survive indefinitely, if not forever. It does this by following the advice many of us get as we grow older—they embrace their inner child, but take it to its logical extreme.
After reproduction, the jellyfish's body begins to shut down. Rather than let death take its natural course, the jellyfish will actually revert back to its immature polyp stage and grow back into a mature jellyfish over time so, and they can do this as often as they like and they remain the same jellyfish every time. By growing down then up, then down and up again, over and over, the jellyfish effectively lives forever. As far as we can tell, the only way an immortal jellyfish dies is via accident, disease, or predator.
Basically, if something happens to impede their self-contained circle of life, then death ceases to take a holiday, but if the jellyfish stays healthy and doesn't find itself anybody's dinner, it could theoretically outlive both our species and whatever dominant species come after us (or maybe they will become the dominant species).
2. Prehistoric Worms
Prehistoric worms must've been made of far harder stuff than our worms today. How else to explain a couple of worms who, after 42,000 years of frozen stasis, sprung back to life, like it was planned all along? In July 2018, a group of Russian scientists teamed up with Princeton University to analyze some 300 samples of nematode roundworms that had been buried in Siberian permafrost.
Frozen since the Stone Age, the scientists selected and thawed out worms from two prime samples, expecting little to happen beyond good science—instead, they had a borderline miracle on their hands. The worms began to move! What's more, they started eating! They seemed well and truly alive after all these millennia.
The worms were quickly carbon-dated to ensure these weren't regular, contemporaneous worms, and sure enough, one worm was around 32,000 years old. Amazingly, the other worm was just under 42,000 years old. That makes them by far the oldest living multicellular creatures on earth.
Roundworms typically only live around four months, so it's not likely these two worms are still with us. Unless of course, the scientists were forward-thinking enough to refreeze them, so they could be rethawed and reanalyzed 50,000 years from now!
3. 11,000-Year-Old Glass Sponge
Can a sponge live forever? One particular glass sponge might as well have lived forever since it lasted a whole lot longer than we ever will. In 2012, the aptly named Ageing Research Reviews journal discussed a member of the sponge species Monorhaphis chuni that had been recently discovered in the East China Sea. A quick bit of carbon dating revealed that the sponge lived to be an astronomical 11,000 years old.
Researchers were able to discover new information about changes in ocean temperature over the past 11,000 years by studying the composition of this sponge's skeleton. They believe that manganese in the sponge's skeleton, which caused irregular growth patterns, indicates that the creature lived through eruptions of seamounts.
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Much of this sponge's 11,000 years were spent frozen, but still, this sponge survived and thrived non-stop for 11 millennia. Even for a deep-sea creature with few actual predators, this is an unreal lifespan. It's hard to say for sure how the one particular sponge lasted for so long, as it has the same features and defensive mechanisms as any other of its species. It's possible that size may be why it lasted so long as size typically dictates sponge longevity.
A tiny sponge may only survive a few years, but sponges wider than one meter could live for several thousand years. This sturdy not-little guy was at least that wide and also spiked 10 feet high. Any speculations are good as to how this specimen got to 11,000 years of fine ocean living before leaving us for that big sponge rack in the sky.
4. 4,265-Year-Old Black Coral
Corals aren't the most exciting creatures on the planet. Given that they just hang around one part of the ocean floor their whole lives, but it's still incredible to know that at least one particular bit of coral has hung around since the old kingdom of ancient Egypt. In 2009, a team of scientists from Texas A&M changed their mind on Leiopathes glaberrima (a species of black coral) they'd been studying off the coast of Hawaii. Since their research began in 2002, they were convinced that the coral was only a few hundred years old.
As it turns out that was not the case—rather, the specimens ranged between 2,000 and 4,265 years old, which is like thinking a girl is in preschool when she's actually someone's 90-year-old grandmother! Its age becomes even cooler when you consider that it looks like a black skeleton with orange tissue, so it's a kind of ancient Halloween creature!
What's not cool is that this 4,200-year-old creature is under threat by human fishermen whose nets damage the corals. Poachers also keep lobbing off pieces of the coral for jewelry. Hopefully, we can stop endangering these ageless wonders soon and leave them alone so they can continue on in ageless glory.
5. 520-Year-Old Greenland Shark
Provided you don't look and feel older every year, it would probably be cool to live to 500. Unless, of course, you don't achieve sexual maturity for about 150 of those years—that'd probably be less fun. This is, however, the life of a Greenland Shark, probably the longest-living species of shark on Earth.
Because they only grow around one centimeter each year, they don't start to age for a long time. The typical Greenland shark can live around 400 years, and there are some decidedly non-typical sharks out there. One, in particular, comes in at a whopping 5 meters long, or 16 and a half feet, and is likely the oldest Greenland shark ever and perhaps the longest living shark in history.
A 2016 study published in Science Magazine tagged this shark as being 392 years old with a plus/minus margin of 120 years. That means this shark could potentially be nearly 520 years old with no signs of slowing down. But, as mentioned earlier, this longevity comes at a price—female Greenland sharks can't reproduce until they're almost 160 years old. So until then, they're just swimming around and eating, waiting to grow old enough to make babies.
So how did we figure out how old these sharks are? Strangely enough, through the powers of nuclear radiation! They discovered several dead sharks with high amounts of carbon-14 due to radiation that seeped into the water from nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s. The amount of carbon in the corpses, combined with their body lengths, told the scientists these sharks were born in the 1960s.
They used that basic formula (carbon-14 amount plus body length) to determine the approximate ages of many more Greenland sharks, including the one that's possibly 520 years old. Not too many good things come from nukes, but learning about these sharks is certainly one of the few.
6. 507-Year-Old Clam
A clam lived to be over 500 years old. It probably wouldn't have been tasty to eat in Iceland in 2006, however, when it was dredged up by a fisherman. It quickly became apparent that the Quahog clam the fisherman found had a ton of history behind it. Researchers got to counting the lines on the shell and determining the clan was 405 years old.
Shortly thereafter, a better count of the lines revealed the truth—this clam made it to 507 years old! This makes it the oldest living animal whose age could be precisely determined. As befitting something so old, the media dubbed the clam "Ming" after the ancient Ming Dynasty that was active when this clam was born. Others tend to call it "Hafrún," which is an Icelandic woman's name that roughly translates to "the mystery of the ocean."
True to its name, nobody knows how the clam lived for so long—it's not like it could exercise in that shell or anything! Adding to the mystery is that nearly 15 years later, we still don't know if Ming/Hafrún was a male or female—due to its age nothing about its reproductive organs could be determined aside from how they no longer worked. Said organs are officially classified as spent, which might be the last thing you want anyone to call your reproductive organs.
Ming/Hafrún's end was sadly human-caused, as it died when the researchers froze it aboard their ship.
7. 255-Year-Old Giant Tortoise
Giant tortoises rarely have trouble living a long time. Many of them make it to 100 or even 120 years old, so long as they're not eaten by a bird or snake when they're tennis-ball-sized babies. This makes the story of one ancient tortoise all the more amazing. One Aldabra giant tortoise who was born around 1750 didn't die until 2006 at a whopping 255 years old!
Adwaita (meaning "one and only" in Sanskrit) was the single oldest land creature in the world and quite possibly the longest living land creature of all time. He was actually so old that he was one of the British General Clive of India's tortoises in the 18th century! Amazingly, this tortoise's story doesn't include much of anything that would point to why he lived for so long—he was by all measures a typical tortoise, who ate typical tortoise food and lived a typical tortoise life.
For some reason, however, he managed to hang on longer than any other tortoise ever. Truth be told, he might still be alive today if not for one incident. In 2005, his shell suffered a crack, and a wound developed that would quickly become infected. A year later Adwaita was dead, and carbon dating of his shell confirmed that he was indeed 255 years old. The jury's still no closer to figuring out how he managed it.
8. 226-Year-Old Koi Fish
Most fish tend to not live long, as anyone who's had to flush a two-week-old goldfish down the toilet can testify. Some fish last longer than others, however. Japanese koi fish, for example, can live up to 40 years. Then there's Hinako, a koi who held on for far longer than she had any right to. By the time she died, she was an unbelievable 226 years old!
Hinako was born around 1751, predating the United States by several decades. She floated from owner to owner before landing in the pond of a man named Dr. Kimiko Shihara. According to the good doctor, his grandmother's mother-in-law had told him that carp has been handed down to them. When he learned this he became intrigued as to just how old this fish was. In 1966, he hired an expert to analyze two of Hanako's scales, and to his utter shock, the analysis concluded that Hinako was 215 years old—more than twice the age of the oldest koi anyone had ever heard of.
Hanako lived another decade before finally dying on July 7th, 1977. In an effort to understand how this could happen, Dr. Shihara also had his other koi fish analyzed. Discovering each one was aged between 139 and 168 years old, he theorized that a combination of pure water isolation, peace, and straight-up good fish genes contributed to their long lives.
9. 211-Year-Old Bowhead
Depending on the whale species, average lifespans vary—blue whales can live around 80 years, while killer whales may only make it to 30. Then you have the bowhead whale which is almost certainly the oldest living whale in the world. Further, it might be the oldest mammal period.
In 2007, a fisherman caught a bowhead with a harpoon stuck in its head. What's more, that particular brand of harpoon was only produced between 1879 and 1885. Curious researchers examined the specimen further, determining that it was about 130 years old at the time of death. That alone would make this whale one of the oldest mammals ever, but researchers were curious about the species as a whole. They examined multiple other bowhead whale specimens and found most were between 135 and 170 years old when they died, but one outlier made it to 211 years of age.
Since it died in the 1990s, that means it was born around the time George Washington was president. Never mind reptiles and fish, for a mammal to last that long is practically unheard of. Experts believe bowheads live so long because they live exclusively in cold northern water and don't have a lot of food to eat. This caused them to evolve to keep thick, warm layers of fat-storing blubber on them at all times. That, plus the cold water essentially forcing the whales to grow slowly and not exert much energy, equals incredibly long life.
10. 120-Year-Old Tuatara
The tuatara is a rare species of New Zealand lizard that typically live to around 60 years of age. That is, except for one sturdy tuatara who is setting new standards both for the age of his species and for its morality. A tuatara named Henry has somehow doubled his life expectancy and is still kicking at age 120. That he has lived so long is extra amazing considering he had cancer—yes, in 2002 his handlers discovered a malignant tumor around his genitals.
After they removed it, Henry was so happy he decided to have children at age 111. Henry was never the fathering kind, and not just due to his age. Henry had been aggressive and angry, he even bit off the tail of a female named Mildred who his keepers wanted him to mate with. However, with the cancer gone, Henry was a whole new lizard, and he and Mildred made up and made 11 babies. Henry is still alive, is still healthy, judging by how he currently lives with at least three lady tuataras.
Maximum Life Span
In animal studies, maximum life span is often taken to be the mean life span of the most long-lived 10% of a given cohort. By another definition, however, maximum life span corresponds to the age at which the oldest known member of a species or experimental group has died. Calculation of the maximum life span in the latter sense depends upon the initial sample size.
The maximum life span of most species is documented in the AnAge database.
Maximum life span is usually longer for species that are larger or have effective defenses against predation, such as bird flight, chemical defense, or living in social groups.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.