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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the week 274: the Greenland shark gut

By Will J Richard, on 13 January 2017

Hello computer-folks. Will Richard here, blogging again. And this time I’ve chosen a pretty amazing fish… or at least a bit of it.

Greenland shark

Greenland shark. Image by NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program; in the public domain.

**the Greenland shark gut**

The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) is a big shark, comparable to the great white in size, native to the cold waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. They have no known predators, are very slow swimming and, most interestingly, are thought to be the longest living vertebrates. They have an estimated maximum lifespan of 392 years plus or minus 120 years. This gives them a maximum, maximum lifespan of 512. Now, assuming ours was (really) old when it was collected and assuming it was collected around 1900 at about the midpoint of the museum’s history, then…

LDUCZ-V14 Greenland shark intestine

LDUCZ-V14 Greenland shark intestine

1388 – birth

This shark could have been born as early as 1388. Yes, 1388. Richard II was on the throne of England, the County of Nice was founded in France and Genghis Kahn’s Mongolian empire lost control of northern China. And our shark, with its nine brothers and sisters was born live, in the dark, cold, deep water. It would have arrived as a perfect miniature of its parents and most likely never saw its mother again.

1538 – baby boom

Greenland sharks take an estimated 150 years to reach breeding age but mating itself has never been observed and the length of the gestation period is unknown so we can’t really say more. At the same time as our shark first started looking for lovers, Michelangelo Buonarroti began designing the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, Henry VIII was dissolving monasteries in England and the Spanish neared the conclusion of the conquest of the Inca Empire.

1900 – death

So after another 362 years of pottering in the deep our shark died. There is some debate about how exactly it would/ could have sustained itself for so long. The stomachs of Greenland sharks have been found to contain lots of fish, moose, seals and even polar bears. Some zoologists suggest that the sharks wait near holes in the ice and then “pounce” on anything that puts its head in the water or falls asleep near the edge. The shark’s top swimming speed is a pitiful 1.6 mph, however. This is about half the speed of a normal human so any kind of pouncing seems unlikely to me. I think it more probable that they feed on things that die and then sink.

Old museum label attached to LDUCZ-V14

Old museum label attached to LDUCZ-V14

Surprising things this shark is older than…

Just so everyone gets how old this fish is, our shark was born before:

  1. The printing press (1439)
  2. Spain (1479)
  3. “Blankets”* (approx. 1604 – 1606)
  4. The newspaper (1605)
  5. The telescope (1608)
  6. The piano (1700)
  7. Thailand (1767)
  8. The USA (1776)
  9. The Grant Museum (1828)

*to be clear this shark is not older than the concept of woollen sheets used to keep people warm, but rather the word: “blanket” is considered one of Shakespeare’s inventions, first appearing in King Lear.


Eye lens radiocarbon reveals centuries of longevity in the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus); Science : 702-704 

Will Richard is Visitor Services Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

2 Responses to “Specimen of the week 274: the Greenland shark gut”

  • 1
    Jakob Boman wrote on 21 January 2017:

    Wow… a maximum lifespan of 512 that’s amazing, and I thought turtles had a long life. Is the Greenland shark extinct? Because I have never heard about it.

  • 2
    Will Richard wrote on 24 January 2017:

    Hi Jakob

    It is pretty unbelievable! And no, Greenland sharks are not extinct. The best estimates of their numbers come from the IUCN (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/60213/0) though it seems we don’t actually know that much about their numbers in the wild.

    All the best

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