Continuing our theme of really old animals that live in the sea, the world record for “oldest age-verified animal” is now held by a clam. The bivalve in question, an Atlantic quahog, lived to the ripe old age of 405, and was going strong until it was inadvertently killed by marine biologists dredging the ocean floor for samples. Age was deduced by counting growth layers (analogous to tree rings) in the animal’s shell.

The Daily Telegraph’s coverage leads with this:

A British scientific team discovered the 405-year-old clam, named after the Chinese dynasty and not the former Liberal Democrat leader, at the bottom of the ocean, and hope its longevity will reveal the secrets of ageing.

Leaving behind the impenetrable inside jokes about British politics, the article later picks up the biogerontological thread and continues:

The shellfish was dredged as part of a study into climate change over the centuries but because of its extreme age it is now also being investigated by a team of biologists looking into ageing.

“Al rushed up to my office to announce that they had found a record-breaker,” said team member Prof Chris Richardson. “If, in Arctica islandica, evolution has created a model of successful resistance to the damage of ageing, it is possible that an investigation of the tissues of these real life Methuselahs might help us to understand the processes of ageing.”

Richard Faragher, a gerontologist at Brighton University working with the Bangor team, said: “Most of what we know about the ocean quahog is what it tastes like. We need to find out how it retains muscle strength, remains cancer-free and keeps its nervous system intact over such a long period of time.” …

Mike Foster, a spokesman for the research arm of Help the Aged, said: “This discovery is not just a curiosity – it is a chance to discover how it remains fit and healthy for hundreds of years.”

It is doubtful that this particular clam will in any way assist research in biogerontology — it died, and its flesh was discarded, long before its age was assessed. I also have my doubts that a previously unstudied, genetically intractable, ultra-long-lived organism with unusual environmental requirements will ever gain traction as a model system for the study of aging.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that this one mollusc’s lengthy tenure on the ocean floor has captured someone’s imagination: The British philanthropy Help for the Aged has made a grant of £40,000 to study the mechanisms of quahog longevity, with the hope that the clam can teach us something about how to preserve our own tissues against the ravages of time. (Hopefully, the lesson will be more portable than “live in freezing water, filter tiny amounts of plankton, and barely ever move.”)