Whales Older Than Moby Dick Still Swim the Seas

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A bowhead whale, believed to be the longest-lived mammal on Earth, breaching off the Alaskan coast. . (Photo: Kate Stafford/WikiMedia)

"In the Heart of the Sea," the new survival drama by director Ron Howard, tells the hauntingly true story of one of the greatest whale attacks in human history. The event, which took place in 1820 and involved an estimated 85-foot-long sperm whale, was the inspiration behind Herman Melville's classic, "Moby Dick."

While this all seems like ancient history, it's incredible to know that there are likely whales alive today that were already swimming the oceans when the legend of Moby Dick was born. Scientists studying bowhead whale populations off the coast of Alaska have discovered several individuals near the second century mark and at least one that may be some 250 years old. It's now believed the species is the longest-lived mammal in the world.

Evidence for the species' longevity first appeared in the early 1980s, after native Alaskan Inupiat hunters began finding harpoon tips made of ivory and stone in the blubber of freshly killed bowhead whales. The use of those materials in hunting would date the whales to at least 1880. It wasn't until 2000, however, that a more accurate dating method, one involving the amino acids in the lenses of a whales' eyes, discovered individuals aged 172 to 211 years old.

“This just about doubles what everybody thought was the longevity of a large whale,” Steven Webster, senior marine biologist and a co-founder of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told the San Jose Mercury Times in 2000. “It’s pretty astounding that whales swimming around out there now could have been swimming around during the Battle of Gettysburg when Lincoln was president."

The bowhead's longevity is so intriguing that scientists earlier this year sequenced its genome in an effort to reveal what allows the creatures to live two centuries or more. “We discovered changes in bowhead genes related to cell cycle, DNA repair, cancer and aging that suggest alterations that may be biologically-relevant,” senior author João Pedro de Magalhães of the University of Liverpool told Discovery News. These findings, he said, indicate that the bowhead may carry a unique cell cycle that wards off age-related DNA damage and resistance to certain diseases.

Author de Magalhães told the International Business Times that such genetic discoveries could one day help extend the lifespan of humans.

"There's no reason to think we cannot live to 200 years," he said. "It's not going to be easy, but it is certainly possible."