Scientists have not discovered a 512-year-old Greenland shark, despite continued reports to the contrary.
Rumors that scientists had discovered a Greenland shark aged half a millennia were first sparked in 2016 after a study that was published in the journal Science analyzed the age of the creatures, which can grow up to 21 feet long and weigh up to 2,200 pounds.
Although the report was widely circulated, even making its way into mainstream publications having nothing to do with science, the belief that scientists had discovered a shark determined to be 512 years old were largely false claims.
So just how old can the Greenland shark live to be? Keep scrolling to find out the truth about the alleged 512-year-old shark.
The research, conducted in 2016 and led by marine biologist Julius Nielsen, studied and analyzed a total of 28 female Greenland sharks and used eye tissue analysis and radiocarbon dating to measure carbon isotopes absorbed by Greenland sharks' eye tissue, providing a probability range for the age.
“The secret behind the success of this study is that we had young and old animals, medium-sized and large animals, and we could compare them all,” Nielsen noted.
Prior to Nielson’s study, the only way to determine the age of the animal was via its size, which failed to produce a scientifically accurate estimate.
Following the study’s publication, a number of media outlets picked the story up, most touting the headline that a 512-year-old shark had found.
“This ancient shark is said to be the world’s oldest living vertebrate at 512 years old…meaning it was born before SHAKESPEARE,” The Sun’s 2017 headline read.
Shark born before Shakespeare is world’s oldest living vertebrate, say experts https://t.co/mQRYCGsbNO— The Sun (@TheSun) December 13, 2017
“512-Year-Old Shark, Believed To Be Oldest Living Vertebrate, Found In North Atlantic,” International Business Times reported.
In their report, International Business Times wrote that “researchers have found an ancient shark in the North Atlantic, believed to be 512 years old,” though they clarified later in their report the specific age range that the researchers had given in their study.
After the study was noticed by the media, it immediately sparked talk online, only further spreading the inaccurate information.
“Not the latest news, but still mind blowing. Life on our blue planet is fantastic!” one person wrote after reading one of the many articles reporting on the study.
“512-year-old Greenland shark now the oldest known living vertebrate,” another wrote. “crazy to think about!”
“Fascinating, and oddly specific,” yet another commented on the news, jokingly adding that the shark “looks not a day over 511 to me.”
“There is apparently a 512-year-old shark in the ocean,” another commented.
Despite the widespread reports that the ancient shark was 512 years old, the truth is that that specific age is the end point of a much broader age range determined by the study, with the researchers having determine the age range of the shark in question to be 272-512 years old.
“The tissue gave them a range for the sharks’ ages — they were at least 272 years old, and as much as 512 years old,” the study noted.
In the study, Nielsen noted that the estimated ages of the sharks were widely uncertain, meaning that there was room for error and giving way to the much broader age range of 272-512.
“It’s important to keep in mind there’s some uncertainty with this estimate,” Nielsen said. “But even the lowest part of the age range — at least 272 years — still makes Greenland sharks the longest-living vertebrate known to science.”
The studied did show that Greenland sharks tend to live for multiple centuries, with the oldest sharks in the study estimated to be 335 years and 392 years old, with a midpoint range of sharks in the study being 390 years old.
“The two biggest sharks — and probably the oldest — were estimated to be 335 and 392 years old, respectively,” Neilsen told Live Science after the study was published in 2016. “And the midpoint of the range — ‘the most likely single-year age in the 272- to 512-year range’ — was 390 years.”
While there’s a chance that the oldest shark in the study wasn’t roaming the waters of the north Atlantic while Shakespeare was alive, that doesn’t mean that Greenland sharks don’t set a record when it comes to their lifespan. Thanks to the study, the sharks are now known to be the “longest-lived vertebrate” known to man.
“Our results show that the Greenland shark is the longest-lived vertebrate known, and they raise concerns about species conservation,” the study’s publication in Science noted.
The misleading reports even led Nielsen himself to speak out regarding the truth, clarifying in a post on Instagram that the shark in questions was aged up to 512 years, though that age was unverified and just on the high end of an age range.
“Social media are going beserk over old greenlandsharks these days,” Nielsen wrote in 2017 when reports of his study once agin began to be widely circulated. “All of this is just the same story coming to life from August 2016 and please note that we have not found any sharks to be 600 or 500 yr old… we have ESTIMATED (meaning that it has not been verified) that one shark was AT LEAST 272 yr old or in more detail that this shark was between 272-512 yr old with 95.5% certainty (the later also being an unverfied estimate).”
“Take home message from the authors of the investigation was that Greenland shark longevity is measured in centures - just like the title of the original article read,” he concluded.