On average, we humans live about 70 years, with some of us living longer and some living shorter. But what is the upper range of a human lifespan and how does it compare to other animals?
The oldest documented age of a person is a woman who lived to be 122 years old, but that is quite rare.
The next group of old-age record breakers all fall around 115 to 117 years old, so we can safely say that 115 is the approximate upper limit of human age. Some people think that humans are the longest living animal on the planet, and that is why we hold such a “special” place. Wrong.
Tortoises live a lot longer than humans. In captivity, the giant ones have lived to be over 250 years old. Even the smaller tortoises can live to be 50 to 100 years old. So if you take a tortoise as a pet, be prepared to make preparations for it in your will because it will probably still be here after you are gone.
What about elephants? Do they live longer than humans? On average, elephants live between 60 and 70 years, much like a human. The oldest recorded age for an elephant is 82 years old, but who knows? They could live a lot longer. We haven’t been recording their births and deaths for as long as we have for humans. I wouldn’t be surprised if they lived longer than humans, so long as nobody shoots them first.
But elephants don’t win the award for longest living mammal by any means. Among the mammals, whales are some of the longest living creatures. Many of the species have a life span comparable to humans, 50 to 70 years, but some of the bigger varieties live much longer. The humpback whale, for example, can live 125 years, and the bowhead whale in the Arctic can live 200 years. Since they live for so long, it is believed that the females go through menopause, and that is why scientists often see large females without calves.
A large bowhead was caught off the Alaska coast in 2007 and when they slaughtered it they were surprised to discover the head of an old harpoon embedded in the blubber of its neck. They were able to trace the harpoon to a company in New Bedford, Massachusetts that manufactured it in 1890. That means for over 100 years this whale has been swimming around with a harpoon in its neck — right up until they time it was killed with a modern harpoon.
Whales aren’t the only underwater creatures that live a long time. The Greenland shark is a big old monster of a thing that can reach 24 feet, but it isn’t vicious. It swims in the cold ocean waters, minding its own business and feeding on the dead and decaying. It can live for 400 years, if it isn’t caught in nets and chopped up for dog food.
Some of the oldest marine creatures are clams. On the east coast there is a type of clam called a quahog. It can live to be 400 years old, especially when it lives in the cold northern waters of the Atlantic.
In the Pacific Northwest, especially around the Puget Sound area, there is a type of clam that everybody loves called a goeduck. They are a big clam, weighing about a pound each. But sometimes you will find a giant one that weighs as much as 15 pounds and it huge. You want to know why it is so big? Because goeducks can live to be 150 years old! And we chop them up for fritters or soup. Seems rather a shame, doesn’t it?
Back on land, many plants live considerably longer than any animal. For example, the Bristlecone pine in California can live over 4,000 years. The oldest one was 4,844 years old, but it was unfortunately cut down in 1964. You might think some stupid vandals cut it down, but you would be wrong. It was a graduate student and Forest Service employees who were doing research. They didn’t even know what they had done until it was too late. So much for scientists not being stupid.
Here in the Pacific Northwest we have several long-lived trees. The Redwoods, for example, are capable of living 2,000 years. But you would be hard-pressed to find one that old because most of them were cut down in the early part of the 1900’s. Now, the average age is 500 to 700 years old.
The giant Sequoia can live well beyond 3,000 years, and we know that because there are several trees that age still producing beautifully. A 1,500 year old Sequoia is just a teenager.
In Central Oregon we have several varieties of western Juniper, some of which can live for over 1,000 years. That places them just behind Sequoias in terms of longevity. A 500-year old juniper would not even be considered rare. The next time you see an old juniper with its trunk all gnarled, know that it is a grandfather among the plant world.
In western Oregon we have the Douglas Fir, which has an average lifespan of 700 years. The tallest and presumably oldest Douglas Fir in Oregon is estimated to be about 500 years old. This is probably about average for trees left to grow through their normal lifespan and not harvested for timber. Now a tree this size is considered a rarity. The oldest known living Douglas Fir is in British Columbia and estimated at 1400 years old. This is probably closer to their upper limit of life span.
As I was reading about all this it struck me that it is just wrong to kill things that have lifespans so much longer than our own. We never should have cut down the trees. We shouldn’t be killing whales. Leave the elephants alone. Let the goeduck and quahog clams lay around and get old. If I have to kill things in order to survive (and apparently I do), I only want to kill things with lifespans that are shorter than mine. I don’t know if that is logical, and it’s probably just emotional. But it seems right to me.