Sharks can live to be at least 272 years old in the Arctic seas, and scientists say one recently caught shark may have lived as long as 512 years.
That's according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science that says Greenland sharks can live longer than any other known animal advanced enough to have a backbone. Until now, the record-holder for the oldest vertebrate was the bowhead whale, known to have lived up to 211 years.
The Greenland shark, a massive carnivore that can be more than 16 feet long, hasn't been studied much, and its life in the cold northern waters remains largely mysterious. Julius Nielsen, at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, says that there had been some hints that Greenland sharks grow very slowly, perhaps less than a centimeter per year. That suggested the huge sharks might be ancient.
"We only expected that the sharks might be very old," says Nielsen. "But we did not know in advance. And it was, of course, a very big surprise to learn that it was actually the oldest vertebrate animal."
He and some colleagues obtained 28 female Greenland sharks taken by research vessels as unintended bycatch from 2010 to 2013. The researchers then used radiocarbon dating techniques on the lenses of the sharks' eyes.