The 11 Longest-Lived Animals

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Can You Outlive a Cave Salamander? We'd Like to See You Try

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We humans like to pride ourselves on our long (and getting longer all the time) life spans but the surprising fact is that, in terms of longevity, Homo sapiens has nothing on other members of the animal kingdom, including sharks, whales, and even salamanders and clams. In this article, discover the 11 longest-lived members of various animal families, in order of increasing life expectancy.

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Longest-Lived Insect - The Queen Termite (50 Years)

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One normally thinks of insects as living only a few days, or at most a few weeks, but if you're a particularly important bug all the rules go out the window. Whatever the species, a colony of termites is ruled by a king and queen; after being inseminated by the male, the queen slowly ramps up her production of eggs, starting with a mere couple of dozen and and eventually attaining levels of close to 25,000 per day (of course, not all of these eggs mature, or else we'd all be knee-deep in termites!) Unmolested by predators, termite queens have been known to reach 50 years of age, and the kings (who spend pretty much their entire lives holed up in the nuptial chamber with their prolific mates) are comparably long-lived. As to those plain, ordinary, wood-eating termites who constitute the bulk of the colony, they only live for one or two years, max; such is the fate of the common slave.

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Longest-Lived Fish - The Koi (50 Years)

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In the wild, fish rarely live for more than a few years and even a well-cared-for goldfish will be lucky to reach the decade mark. But few fish in the world are more tenderly indulged than koi, a variety of the domestic carp that populates the "koi ponds" popular in Japan and other parts of the world, including the U.S. Like their carp cousins, koi can withstand a wide variety of environmental conditions, though (especially considering their bright colors, which are constantly being tinkered with by humans) they're not especially well-equipped to defend themselves against predators. Some koi individuals have been reputed to live for over 200 years, but the most widely accepted estimate among scientists is 50 years, which is still a lot longer than your average fish-tank denizen.

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Longest-Lived Bird - The Macaw (100 Years)

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In many ways, macaws are unnervingly similar to suburban Americans of the 1950's: these colorful parrot relatives mate for life; the females incubate the eggs (and care for the young) while the males forage for food; and they have human-life like spans, surviving for up for up to 60 years in the wild and 100 years in captivity. (Ironically, even though macaws have unusually long life spans, many species are endangered, a combination of their desirability as pets and the devastation of their rainforest habitats.) The longevity of macaws, parrots, and other members of the Psittacidae family raises an interesting question: since birds evolved from dinosaurs, and since we know that many dinosaurs were as small and colorfully feathered, might some of the pint-sized representatives of this ancient reptile family have attained century-long life spans? 

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Longest-Lived Amphibian - The Cave Salamander (100 Years)

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If you were asked to identify an animal that regularly hits the century mark, the blind salamander, Proteus anguinus, would probably be close to last on your list: how can a fragile, eyeless, cave-dwelling, six-inch-long amphibian possibly survive in the wild for more than a couple of weeks? Naturalists attribute P. anguinus' longevity to its unusually sluggish metabolism—this salamander takes 15 years to mature, mates and lays its eggs only every 12 or so years, and barely even moves except when seeking out food (and it's not like it requires all that much food to begin with). What's more, the dank caves of southern Europe where this salamander lives are virtually devoid of predators, allowing P. anguinus to exceed 100 years in the wild. (For the record, the next longest-lived amphibian, the Japanese giant salamander, only rarely passes the half-century mark.)

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Longest-Lived Primates - Human Beings (100 Years)

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Human beings so regularly hit the century mark—there are about 500,000 100-year-olds in the world at any given time—that it's easy to lose sight of what an astonishing advance this represents. Tens of thousands of years ago, a lucky Homo sapiens would have been described as "elderly" if she lived into her twenties or thirties, and until the 18th century or so, average life expectancy rarely exceeded 50 years. (The main culprits were high infant mortality and susceptibility to fatal diseases; the fact is that at any stage of human history, if you somehow managed to survive your early childhood and teens, your odds of making it to 50, 60 or even 70 were much brighter.) To what can we attribute this stunning increase in longevity? Well, in a word, civilization—especially sanitation, medicine, nutrition, and cooperation (during the Ice Age, a human tribe might have left its elderly to starve in the cold; today, we make special efforts to care for our octogenarians and nonagenarians.)

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Longest-Lived Mammal - The Bowhead Whale (200 Years)

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As a general rule, larger mammals tend to have comparably longer life spans, but even by this standard the bowhead whale is an outlier: adults of this hundred-ton cetacean regularly exceed the 200-year mark. Recently, an analysis of the Balaena mysticetus genome shed some light on this mystery: it turns out that the bowhead whale possesses unique genes that aid in DNA repair and resistance to mutations (and therefore cancer). Since B. mysticetus lives in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, its relatively sluggish metabolism may also have something to do with its longevity. Today, there are about 25,000 bowhead whales living in the northern hemisphere, a healthy rebound in population since 1966, when serious international efforts were made to deter whalers.

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Longest-Lived Reptile - The Giant Tortoise (300 Years)

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The giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands and the Seychelles are classic examples of "insular gigantism"—the tendency of animals confined to island habitats, unmolested by predators, to grow to unusually large sizes. And these turtles have life spans that perfectly match their 500- to 1,000-pound weights: giant tortoises in captivity have been known to live longer than 200 years, and there's every reason to believe that testudines in the wild regularly hit the 300-year mark. As with some of the other animals on this list, the reasons for the giant tortoise's longevity are self evident: these reptiles move extremely slowly, their basal metabolisms are set at an extremely low level, and their life stages tend to be comparably stretched out (for example, the Aldabra giant tortoise takes 30 years to attain sexual maturity, about double the time of a human being).

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Longest-Lived Shark - The Greenland Shark (400 Years)

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If there were any justice in the world, the Greenland shark (Squalus microcephalus) would be every bit as well-known as the great white: it's just as big (some adults exceed 2,000 pounds) and much more exotic, given its northern Arctic habitat. You can even make the case that the Greenland shark is just as dangerous as the star of Jaws, but in a different way: whereas a hungry great white shark will bite you in half, the flesh of S. microcephalus is loaded with trimethylamine N-oxide, a chemical that makes its meat poisonous to humans. All that said, though, the most notable thing about the Greenland shark is its 400-year life span, which can be attributed to its sub-freezing environment, its relatively low metabolism, and the protection afforded by the methylated compounds in its muscles. Astonishingly, this shark doesn't even reach sexual maturity until it's well past the 100-year mark, a stage when most other vertebrates are not only sexually inactive, but long since dead.

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Longest-Lived Mollusk - The Ocean Quahog (500 Years)

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A 500-year-old mollusk sounds like the setup for a joke: given that most clams are virtually immobile, how can you tell if the one you're holding is living or dead? There are, however, scientists who investigate this kind of thing for a living, and they have determined that the ocean quahog, Arctica islandica, can literally survive for centuries, as demonstrated by one individual that passed the 500-year mark (you can determine the age of a mollusk by counting the growth rings in its shell). Ironically, the ocean quahog is also a popular food in some parts of the world, meaning that most individuals never get to celebrate their quincentennials. (Biologists have yet to figure out why A. islandica is so long-lived; one clue may be its relatively stable antioxidant levels, which prevent the cell damage responsible for most signs of aging in animals.)

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Longest-Lived Microscopic Organisms - Endoliths (10,000 Years)

Extreme Ecosystems

Determining the life span of a microscopic organism is a tricky matter: in a sense, all bacteria are immortal, since they propagate their genetic information by constantly dividing (rather than, like most higher animals, having sex and dropping dead). The term "endoliths" refers to bacteria, fungi, amoebas or algae that live deep underground in the clefts of rocks; studies have shown that the individuals of some of these colonies only undergo cell division once every hundred years, endowing them with life spans in the 10,000-year range. (Technically, this is different from the ability of some microorganisms to revive from stasis or deep-freeze after tens of thousands of years; in a meaningful sense, these endoliths are continuously "alive," albeit not very active.) Perhaps most importantly, endoliths are autotrophic, meaning that they fuel their metabolism not with oxygen or sunlight, but with inorganic chemicals, which are virtually inexhaustible in their underground habitats.

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Longest-Lived Invertebrate - Turritopsis dohrnii (Potentially Immortal)

Takashi Murai

There's no really good way to determine how old your average jellyfish is: these invertebrates are so fragile that they don't lend themselves well to intensive analysis in laboratories. However, no list of the longest-lived animals would be complete without a mention of Turritopsis dohrnii, a jellyfish that has the ability to revert back to its juvenile polyp stage after reaching sexual maturity, thus making it potentially immortal. However, it's pretty much inconceivable that any T. dohrnii individual has literally managed to survive for millions of years; just because you're biologically "immortal" doesn't mean you can't be eaten by other animals or succumb to drastic changes in your environment. Ironically, too, it's nearly impossible to cultivate T. dohrnii in captivity, a feat that so far has been accomplished by only a single scientist working in Japan.