Around three centuries ago, when Queen Anne was uniting England and Scotland, Voltaire was penning his works, and 60 years before the US would declare its independence from Britain, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico a strange organism was being born.
Living in perpetual darkness, under crushing pressures, scientists have found one of the longest-living animals on the planet. Escarpia laminata, a type of tubeworm, are thought to live until 250, though some larger specimens may reach ages of up to 300 years old as they grow slowly in the frigid waters. They have published their results in The Science of Nature.
It was not long ago that researchers revealed that the Greenland shark, another creature of the deep, is also one of the longest living. They found that one female may have been up to 512 years old, making it the oldest known vertebrate ever discovered, though the average for the shark was thought to have been only a slightly more conservative 272 years of age, making the tubeworm not far off this record.
The deep sea is home to a particularly large number of long-lived organisms, ranging from sharks and coral to octopuses and these tubeworms. This is thought to be largely down to the fact that as the temperature drops as depth increases, the animals' metabolic rates follow suit and slow down. With many deep-sea critters, there is a gradient in relation to body size and depth, and how long they are likely to live.
But curiously for the tubeworms, they don’t follow this rule as some shallower species can still reach impressive ages. It was for this reason that the researchers decided to focus on the strange bottom-dwelling animals in really deep water, and see if they could instead figure out just how old they do get.
They caught and marked 356 tubeworms belonging to the species Escarpia laminata, which tend to live in cold seeps between 1,000 and 3,300 meters (3,280 to 9,840 feet) beneath the waves. Collected from various locations around the Gulf of Mexico, the team marked the tubeworms, and then let them get on with their lives. They tracked just how much the animals grew over a period of a year, in order to work out the speed at which the organisms grow, before then being able to estimate their ages based on their size.
They found that in relation to body size, the tubeworms were far older than the general rule would usually predict. It seems there is much we don't yet understand or know about the far reaches of our oceans, or what other old age creatures they may still be hiding.