Bowhead Whales Live Over 200 Years

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

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

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

Age Determined From Eyes

Scientists figured out the whales’ ages by studying changes in amino acids in the lenses of the eyes. The age estimates were bolstered by native Alaskan Inupiat hunters in Barrow and other villages along the frozen north coast of Alaska who found six ancient harpoon points in the blubber of freshly killed bowhead whales since 1981.

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

Bowhead whales, which live in the Beaufort and Bering seas between Russia and Alaska, are a species of baleen whale, which eat by using baleen bristles to filter krill and fish from the ocean for food.

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

If Bada and colleagues at the University of Alaska find that bowhead can live 150 years or more, the whale would be oldest mammal on the planet.

“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 newspaper in a story published Tuesday.

“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,” Webster said.

Stone Harpoons Stuck in Blubber

The findings were first published last year in the Canadian Journal of Zoology and more recently in Science News and New Scientist.

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

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

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

It is unclear why the bowhead can live so long.

One theory suggests that harsh living conditions have forced bowheads to evolve in order to survive long enough to breed over several 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 grow to old, old ages seem to grow in value. Isn’t that the way it is with wines and antiques?”