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What is the oldest living thing on earth? Who has the secrets to longevity?

Updated on November 11, 2016

Is it a person? a plant? a spore? a bacteria? or something in the back of the refrigerator? What can help us live longer? What is the key to anti-aging? There are few certain answers but that doesn't keep us from guessing. Actually scientists in a variety of fields from geology to forestry have been searching and measuring.

Oldest person?

Not counting Methuselah, we humans have a hard time cracking 100 years of age. Most people don't make it that far; those that do get their pictures in the paper.

Sketchy records and anecdotal claims can make age verification very difficult. The Gerontology Research Group researches these claims and tracks people over 110 years old. Here is their list of validated living supercentenarians...

Life expectancy is a moving target, thankfully moving upward. The world average is 67.2. Try to be born in Japan which leads the list of countries at 82.6. The shortest expectancy is Swaziland at 39.2.

Jeanne Louise Calment, was born on February 21, 1875 and lived 122 years and 164 days!
Jeanne Louise Calment, was born on February 21, 1875 and lived 122 years and 164 days!

1.5 Million Years Is a Long Time to Hide...

Scientists have found bacterial activity in a reddish feature on the side of Taylor Glacier on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, in a place called Blood Falls. The red comes from iron, and apparently so does the life force for this bacterial life form.

Scientists speculate that these microorganisms use iron that leaches from the glacial bedrock to perform a series of metabolic reactions that produce a life energy. The oxidized iron creates the red hue that leads to the Blood Falls name.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains.
Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains.

Oldest individual plant?

We're talking about a single plant here; one that reproduces externally - flowers, seeds. There are a few candidates including a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert, placed by some at 11,000 years old. However, most scientists agree on the Bristlecone Pine. Genus: Pinus, Species: longaeva.

How old? Dr. Edmund Schulman dated an individual plant in the White Mountains in California at over 4,700 years. This pine is nicknamed Methuselah, and it's location is kept secret to protect it.

Amazingly, this long living species, seems to thrive in the some of the harshest conditions. They are found in several US mountain ranges, typically at the 11,000 foot level. That is some very windy, very cold territory!

Another old sucker?

In Tasmania, we have the Kings Holly which is another sterile plant with no flowers, no seeds. The Kings Holly reproduces by root suckering and produces one big plant.

How big? 1-2 kilometers. How old? Estimated at 43,000 years, by the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.

Meet B. permians from New Mexico
Meet B. permians from New Mexico

Oldest icky thing?

Then we have some spores contained in sea salt in Carlsbad, NM. Scientists can crack open these spores and find bacteria in suspended animation. Reactivate the bacteria and we have a living thing that can reproduce, B. permians.

How old? Try 250 million years!

Ooops - this one is also a little controversial as some other scientist think that no bacteria can remain viable this long, and that Mr. B. permians is actually contamination from the salt that isn't that old.

Quahog clam show their age on the outside, you count the rings...
Quahog clam show their age on the outside, you count the rings...
Giant tortoise from the Galapogos
Giant tortoise from the Galapogos

Happy as a clam...

A quahog clam was dredged from the Arctic waters off the coast of Iceland. It's age was calculated to be 405 years! Apparently you can see and count growth lines on the clams shell. Scientists are studying these growth lines as part of research on climate change.

This particular clam ends up in the record books instead of on the dinner table. Maybe there are antiaging vitamins in the sea?

Longest living things that walk, creep or fly?

Records like these generally come from zoos and aquariums. Conditions in the wild would alter numbers, but these are good for order of magnitude for oldest lining things by species:

Mammal, excluding human - an elephant lived for 69 years.

Bird - a turkey buzzard lived to 118 years and a swan to 102.

Reptiles - we have a giant tortoise that crept around for 152 years.

Amphibians - a giant salamander lasted 55 years.

Fish - no surprise that a catfish lived 60 years.

Insect - cicada is on the list for 17 years, but I saw somewhere that a queen ant lived for 25 years, as her colony came and went.

Hmmm, it seems like being big (elephant, giant tortoise) and belligerent (swan) helps. Being a good sleeper works for the cicada.

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I got the idea for this HubPage from Clay Thompson's article in the Arizona Republic. He has a daily column called Valley 101. He answers readers questions. He tends to pick odd questions, and then print his version of an answer - often interesting, usually humerous. He has one great job - research questions on the Internet all day and then write up the easy and interesting ones!

Animal, bird, insect numbers came from the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, click here for full list.

Blood Falls supports life?


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