Oldest Animal – Ming (1499-2006) RIP

File:Ming clam shell WG061294R.jpg

Ming (photo credit: Alan D Wanamaker Jr1, Jan Heinemeier • James D Scourse • Christopher A Richardson1 • Paul G Butler • Jón Eiríksson • Karen Luise Knudsen)

Ming, an ocean quahog clam, was dredged up from the Icelandic shelf in 2006 at the ripe old age of 507, by scientists looking for long term climate records for the north Atlantic. Original estimates of the clam’s age put it a century less than that (which still earned the title of oldest known animal), but a fresh analysis has established the older age with a high degree of confidence.

Scientists are quick to point out that there are probably other clams at least as old still living in the ocean, and probably others have been served in chowder. And Ming does not begin to compete for oldest known organism, if we include plants, microbes, clonal organisms or colonies. There are a surprising number of plants with ages given in millennia. Still, this is the oldest animal we know of, and we killed it (albeit unwittingly) for science. Ming’s demise raises two interesting questions in my mind: how does age relate to value, and how deeply connected is killing to science?

Most of us would not hesitate to kill an ordinary clam for food, or to collect it as a specimen if we thought any interesting scientific question could be answered by it. Why should the clam being old change that? This reminds me of the incident around the felling of a tree called the “Mother of the Forest,” which caused a great outcry and boosted a growing preservation movement. If the concern were only care for the organism killed, we might be troubled less by the death of older individuals, because they had already lived full lives. So why are we bothered more? It has to do with a sense of sublimity or reverence at things which exceed the scale of our own existence, either in size or age. I suspect the death of Ming would be treated as a much bigger deal if the clam had grown to a great size as well, and giant sequoias several centuries old are bound to get more reverence than a 12,000 year-old bush in the desert. But relating age to size only helps so much, for we seem just as much at a loss to explain why big animals deserve more respect. All we can say is that, for better or worse, we do respect size and age. Perhaps it is enough justification that these organisms help us put our own pride in check.

The other question Ming raises is about science and death. I once interned at the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection. Such collections are extremely important to scientific work in evolution, ecology and taxonomy. If you have only been to zoos, you might think this would be a similar place by the name. Wildlife collections have more in common with The Far Side comics than with zoos though; there is row after row of shelves with jar after jar full of pickled creatures. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working there and would gladly do it again. There is nothing quite like spending an afternoon up to your elbows doing inventory in barrels of rattlesnakes. And if you have ever looked at a field guide with a range map, you have relied on the data these specimens provide. Some of the creatures died of other causes (roadkill, for instance) and were scavenged for science, but most were killed for the collection. There is increasing discomfort with it, but this is our mode of operation.

Thoreau started down this path, helping Agassiz establish the collection at Harvard, but he recoiled when he found that the work had produced in him an immediate desire to kill any rare creature he found. Gandalf’s rebuke of Saruman is apropos: “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Seen this way, as a thirst for knowledge that trumps compassion and reverence, science appears to be a species of lust. But understanding the climate is not a feather for our vanity, it is of real and urgent importance. Would you refrain from dredging a sample of a clam bed for such a project, if you knew that you might kill a penta-centenarian clam? While they didn’t aim to kill the oldest animal, I think they may have know that was a risk they were taking.

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