It was this tweet (reposted on Smart News) that caught my attention:
But the article he links to is only good news.
First, the age: by at least one measure, bowhead whales might have the longest life span of any mammal . . . by a lot. By measuring levels of aspartic acid in the eyes of deceased bowheads, (and assuming this is an accurate measure of bowhead age,) researchers found that while most lived to a "normal" age of between 20 and 60, there are a handful of outliers that go much longer: 91, 135, 159, 172, and a whopping 211 years old for the oldest whale measured. With a 16% fudge factor, that 211 year old whale could have been only 177 . . . or 245. That puts 122-year-old human Jeanne Calment to shame.
These ridiculously old ages draw skepticism from other marine researchers. Outdated stone harpoon tips—phased out around the turn of the century—found buried in several old whale-scars validate ages at least into the 70s (not record-breaking, nor older than Moby Dick, but a good absolute minimum.) NOAA conservatively puts the life span of bowheads at "over 100 years". But the kid in me really wants to believe that there are whales alive today that personally knew Thomas Jefferson (or would have, had he been an arctic marine biologist instead of President of the United States.)
Oh, and the good news I mentioned above? Bowhead populations are kicking some serious butt. From an estimated pre-commercial-whaling population of 30,000-50,000, bowheads were down to between 1,000 and 3,000 individuals (depending on who you ask) in the early 1900s. But estimates based on the most recent counts put their current numbers at 14,000-15,000 . . . somewhere around one-third to one-half their original population. Craig George's yearly April-to-June bowhead count is seeing three times as many whales annually as it did when he started in 1978.
Here is a cheesy National Geographic segment about bowhead whales: