From eldritch aspen colonies to immortal jellyfish, the world is lousy with long-lived organisms. But what’s the oldest?
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So, as far as aging goes, humans have it pretty good. I mean, we’re no giant tortoises, but we’re generally capable of living for decades – some of us for more than a century! Here at BrainStuff, this got us thinking: What is the world’s oldest living thing?
It’s a tricky question, and the answer depends on how we define “living” and a “thing”.
First, let’s tackle what we mean by “thing”. If we say a “thing” could also be a clonal colony, then the competition heats up quickly. There are numerous plant and fungal clone colonies that have been around for tens of thousands of years, and they’re still barreling along.
There’s King Clone, the creosote bush in the Mojave – almost 12,000 years old. And we can’t forget Pando, the gigantic male quaking aspen clonal colony in Utah. He’s about 80,000 years old. Incidentally, he’s also the heaviest living thing, weighing in around 6 million kg.
But what if we stick to single organisms? If so, then the tiny endoliths are strong contenders. These extremophile Methuselahs like to kick back and take it easy – for millions of years they’ve lived a mile and a half below the ocean floor, with metabolisms slower than molasses, only reproducing once every few centuries or millennia. I mean, that makes pandas look like rabbits.
There’s a big – let’s call it a loophole – in the definition of living. Dormancy. What if something was frozen in time, trapped in stasis, and then revived like Captain America or the alien in the Thing?
In 2011 Professor Brian Schubert published a paper on just that – he’d discovered bacteria in what he called “a kind of hibernation state” inside tiny bubbles of 34,000 year old salt crystals.
So if we allow an organism to take a “time out” and spend thousands of years in stasis, there are loads of competitors for the title of “oldest living thing."
There’s one other important thing: some organisms might be immortal. Now, don’t get jealous – we’re not talking some super sexy vampire-type immortality. Nope, we’re talking about jelly fish – specifically hydra and the Turritopsis dohrnii.
The Turritopsis is only about 4.5 mm large, but capable of something that may be unique in the animal world – after reaching sexual maturity, it can revert to its polyp stage. It can reverse and reset its aging cycle, rendering it biologically immortal. And the hydra doesn’t seem to age at all. This means that, potentially, the oldest living organism could, one day, be a jellyfish.
But for now, even, the oldest living, continually active things on earth appear to be the extremophile organisms collectively called endoliths. At least, that’s the current working theory.