Bowhead Whales Live Over 200 Years

ByABC News

S A N   J O S E, Calif., Dec. 20, 2000 -- Evidence of ancient harpooning methodscombined with modern scientific research shows that a bowhead whalecan live as long as 200 years and is possibly the oldest mammal onEarth.

Three bowhead whales killed by Inupiat Eskimos in northernAlaska were estimated to be 135 to 172 years, while a fourthbowhead was believed to be 211 years old, researchers concluded.

“This is just incredibly interesting,” Jeffrey Bada, a marinechemistry professor at the Scripps Institution in San Diego, toldThe San Jose Mercury News. “Maybe what we’re looking at are thesurvivors, the males who escaped hunting all those years.”

Age Determined From Eyes

Scientists figured out the whales’ ages by studying changes inamino acids in the lenses of the eyes. The age estimates werebolstered by native Alaskan Inupiat hunters in Barrow and othervillages along the frozen north coast of Alaska who found sixancient harpoon points in the blubber of freshly killed bowheadwhales since 1981.

Modern harpoon points are made of steel but the ones found inthe bowhead were made of ivory and stone, which haven’t been usedsince the 1880s.

Bowhead whales, which live in the Beaufort and Bering seasbetween Russia and Alaska, are a species of baleen whale, which eatby using baleen bristles to filter krill and fish from the oceanfor food.

Most whales are believed to live between 80 to 100 years.Previously, the oldest whales were believed to be southernhemisphere blue and fin whales, which can live up to 114 years.

If Bada and colleagues at the University of Alaska find thatbowhead can live 150 years or more, the whale would be oldestmammal on the planet.

“This just about doubles what everybody thought was thelongevity of a large whale,” Steven Webster, senior marinebiologist and a co-founder of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told thenewspaper in a story published Tuesday.

“It’s pretty astounding that whales swimming around out therenow could have been swimming around during the Battle of Gettysburgwhen Lincoln was president,” Webster said.

Stone Harpoons Stuck in Blubber

The findings were first published last year in the CanadianJournal of Zoology and more recently in Science News and NewScientist.

The Inupiat have hunted whales for more than 4,000 years withharpoons and for decades told of whales that several generations ofhunters recognized by their markings.

When the ivory and stone harpoon tips started appearing, CraigGeorge, a wildlife biologist with the county government in Barrow,located 730 miles northwest of Anchorage, had theories about thebowheads’ hardiness but couldn’t prove it.

“It seemed too fantastic at the time,” said George. “Thenthese really beautiful ancient stone harpoons starting showing up,and we realized something really interesting might be happeninghere.”

It is unclear why the bowhead can live so long.

One theory suggests that harsh living conditions have forcedbowheads to evolve in order to survive long enough to breed overseveral years to keep the species from extinction.

“This all adds luster to what is already a very compelling,charismatic animal,” said Webster.

“We compare everything to our human terms, and things that growto old, old ages seem to grow in value. Isn’t that the way it iswith wines and antiques?”