The Greenland shark, found in the North Atlantic and declared the oldest-living vertebrate, is believed to spend most of its time at depth, but comes to the surface to feed on large mammals. Picture: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Creative/Getty Images
The Greenland shark, found in the North Atlantic and declared the oldest-living vertebrate, is believed to spend most of its time at depth, but comes to the surface to feed on large mammals. Picture: Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Creative/Getty Images

Sharks could be more than 500 years old

IT WAS just a tiddler when Henry VIII became king.

Now 512 years old, a Greenland shark found in the North Atlantic has been declared the oldest-living vertebrate.

The extraordinary fish is thought to have been born as long ago as 1505.

Experts used material in the 18ft shark's eye to estimate its age, according to journal Science.

Greenland sharks, which swim in waters as cold as -1C, were previously thought to be able to live up to 400 years old. But scientists analysed a group of 28 Greenland sharks and found the oldest could be aged between 272 and 512.

The shark is thought to grow just a centimetre a year, meaning the oldest could have lived through the English Civil War and the Reformation.

The fish mainly hunt seal, but scientists also found polar bear remains in their stomachs.

Last August another Greenland shark, thought to be aged 400, was declared the oldest-living vertebrate. Scientists from the University of Copenhagen claimed the fish had beaten the bowhead whale to the title.

In a separate study, researchers from the Arctic University of Norway are mapping the genome of the Greenland shark in an attempt to crack the mystery of its long life.

Some experts believe it could help to extend the lives of humans.

Speaking at a conference in Exeter, study leader Professor Kim Praebel said: 'This is the longest living vertebrate on the planet.

''... we are currently sequencing its whole nuclear genome which will help us discover why the Greenland shark not only lives longer than other shark species but other vertebrates.'' Greenland sharks are huge, sluggish beasts, that usually grow to about 16ft as they cruise the cold North Atlantic depths. Until now, determining age was difficult.

For some fish, scientists are able to examine the concentric circles in ear bones called otoliths that can be counted like the rings in a tree.

Julius Nielsen, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen, said: ''But the Greenland shark is a very, very soft shark - it has no hard body parts where growth layers are deposited. So it was believed that the age could not be investigated.'' Experts studied the shark's eye lens, which contains proteins that were formed when the shark was a pup and can be dated using radiocarbon techniques. The team looked at 28 sharks, most of which had died after being caught in fishing nets. The largest shark - a female - was thought to be 512.



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