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Some of nature’s creatures enjoy a human life-span

Posted in Animals, Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about nature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Termites, picture, image, illustration

The Queen Termite, protected by a soldier outside her cell, can continue to lay eggs for fifty years

Captain James Cook, the adventurous 18th century navigator, visited the Southern Pacific island of Tonga in 1773. As a gesture of friendship, he presented the island’s king with a tortoise, to which the Tongans gave the name Tui Malela.

In 1966, Tui Malela died at an age of over 200. This record lacks proper documentation. But if it is correct, the Tongan tortoise led a long, if uneventful, life.

As a general rule, however, few creatures live longer than man, whose greatest age is 110, though the average is nearer 70.

Man’s closest rival is the tortoise, which holds the record for long life among the vertebrates. A male Marion’s tortoise has lived to become 152 and a European pond tortoise more than 120.

Birds have far shorter lives. One sulphur-crested cockatoo was known to have lived for 56 years. Another record, listed as “probable”, gives an age of 73 for a greater sulphur-crested cockatoo. This Australasian bird is a member of the parrot family. An owl reached the age of 68 and an ostrich survived until it was 62.

A male Andean condor attained the age of 72. A herring gull ringed in the nest was proved to have lived for 36 years, while the record for a swift is 21 years. Other records are: swallow, 16 years; blue tit, 11 years; willow warbler, 5 years. The average life-span, however, is in every case very much shorter.

Predators help to limit the lives of the birds, a hazard which they share with the fishes. Nevertheless, some fishes have achieved remarkable ages, such as a lake sturgeon which was estimated by its growth rings to be 154. There is an unauthenticated record of a pike surviving for 262 years, although it is known that 50 years would be nearer to the unusual maximum age.

In comparison with these figures, mammals are not very long-lived. The record for a horse is 62. Whales seldom exceed 50, although some have reached the age of 90. Although elephants rarely live beyond 50, there are exceptions, such as 70 years for a bull timber elephant. In captivity, African elephants have lived over 80 years. Even older was a blue killer whale called Old Tom who was spotted every winter in an Australian bay from 1843 to 1930.

Growth rings in the ear-plugs of other blue whale specimens have also indicated life-spans of about a century.

In the insect world, the queen termite has an egg-laying span of half a century. Close behind must come the cicada. It is known as the “seventeen year locust” in the warmer parts of the USA and Mexico, where it lives. The nymph spends this number of years underground, feeding on the roots of plants, until it emerges and changes into a transparent-winged adult insect.

Champion among the crustaceans is the American lobster, which has a tally of 50 years. A boa constrictor attained its 40th birthday, and a giant salamander could have put 55 candles on its birthday cake, had it been able to do so.

The records do not stop here. Twenty-eight years for a spider has been authenticated, and a mollusc has lived for a hundred years.

A record to beat all records, not for old age but for continuity of species, is held by a deep sea worm snail which was thought to have become extinct 320 million years ago. Specimens found in 1952 proved that it had not died out.

The examination of fossils showed that it was living 500 million years ago, when these creatures must have had the world virtually to themselves.

While they settled down at the bottom of the oceans, other animals evolved, enjoying lives which grew longer and longer as the species improved over the centuries, finally achieving the records we note with fascination today.

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