World's Oldest 'Non-Colonial' Animal Was Even More Ancient Than Previously Thought


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A tiny clam that was dredged up from its home under the sea in 2006 and named world's oldest 'non-colonial' animal is making headlines again. That's because scientists had grossly miscalculated the age of the ancient mollusk. Turns out that Ming was not 405 years old as had been originally believed, but an astounding 507, when discovered.

Scooped up from 262-feet deep waters off the coast of Iceland by researchers from Britain's Bangor University as part of a project to study the effects of climate change on long-living clams, its initial age was arrived at by analyzing the lines on its shells. That's because similar to trees, mollusks add a layer or ring, each year. After counting 405, the scientists decided to name it Ming in honor of the Chinese dynasty (1368-1644) during which it was born.

Though initially named the world's oldest animal, its status was slightly downgraded after some scientists argued that the 'oldest animal' designation should only be assigned to animals that grow in colonies - like some of the ancient corals that have been discovered. Since mollusks are loners, Ming became the world's oldest non-colonial animal. The Guinness Book of Records came up with an even simpler solution by calling Ming what it really was - The world's oldest mollusk!

With everyone happy, Ming was placed back in the archives and almost forgotten until November 6th, when the Bangor University scientists announced that they may have been too hasty in proclaiming its age. Paul Butler, a researcher at the University says that a recount of Ming's rings together with sophisticated age estimating techniques like carbon dating-14 had made them realize that the ocean quahog was about a century older than they had previously thought or to be exact - 507 years old! Their initial count had been off because as clams grow older, their rate of size increase diminishes, which means that the rings get closer and closer making it hard to count accurately. However this time around, they are sure they have Ming's age right!

While this doesn't really change Ming's status because it was and continues to remain the world's oldest non colonial animal, it does change the era it lived through. Pushing its birth date back by a century, means that it was born a mere seven years after Columbus discovered America and had lived through historical events like the building of India's Taj Mahal as well as, two world wars.

This time around, the researchers used a variety of techniques to verify the clam's age. In addition to counting the bands on its outside and near the ligaments where the shells of the two halves join, the team used carbon-14 dating and even compared changes in more recent growth bands with other organisms that lived in the same environment. They are confident they have the age right this time.

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Alas, the ancient creature is no more - That's because when it was lifted off its centuries old home, the scientists inadvertently killed it. While there is a debate about whether it was the freezer that it was put into along with the 200 other samples collected or the researchers prying its shell open to calculate its age that caused its demise, the unfortunate truth is that Ming officially died at the ripe old age of 507!

But given that Arctica islandica bivalve mollusks (the kind Ming was) are known to live hundreds of years, there may be an even older specimen still lying quietly in the depth of our oceans hoping, that it will never be discovered!


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