What Is the Longest Living Animal? From Tortoises to Whales

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
A Seychelles giant tortoise stands on dried grass
Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise born around 1832, is the oldest known terrestrial animal, but numerous aquatic animals on this list are even older. Massimiliano Finzi / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The ocean quahog clam can live for more than 500 years, making it one of the longest-living animals.
  • Bowhead whales can reach ages over 200 years, due to their slow metabolism and cold Arctic habitats.
  • The Greenland shark, the longest-living vertebrate, can live up to 400 years, determined by radiocarbon dating of proteins in their eye lenses.

Jeanne Louise Calment, who lived to the ripe age of 122, witnessed incredible milestones in human history, from the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower to the advent of the internet. Her long life, spanning well over a century, is a testament to human resilience and longevity.

But 122 years is merely a starting point in the animal kingdom, where the world's longest-living animal has existed for hundreds of years. Yes, you read that right.


Within the diverse habitats of our planet, from the deepest oceans to the ancient lands, reside creatures whose life cycles extend far beyond what we've come to expect in human life.


World's Longest Living Mammal: The Bowhead Whale

The bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), also known as the Arctic whale, is a baleen whale species belonging to the family Balaenidae. Native to Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, this species is characterized by its massive bow-shaped head, which accounts for about one-third of its body length.

Notably, this whale species is among the longest-lived mammals on Earth, with some individuals believed to be over 200 years old. But how do we determine their exact age?


Their scars.

The bowhead whale's lifespan has been substantiated by the discovery of antique harpoon points embedded in the blubber of living individuals, some of which date back to the 1800s. Their remarkable longevity is attributed to their slow growth rate and the cold Arctic waters they inhabit, which may contribute to reduced metabolic rates and slower cellular aging.

Despite their longevity and impressive size, reaching up to 60 feet (18 meters) in length and weighing as much as 100 tons (90 metric tonnes), bowheads have faced significant threats from commercial whaling in the past.

Today, they are protected under various conservation statutes. However, they remain listed as "least concern" by the IUCN, with ongoing concerns about climate change and diminishing Arctic ice impacting their natural habitat.


Oldest Living Land Animal: Seychelles Giant Tortoise

The oldest known terrestrial animal is "Jonathan," a Seychelles giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa), believed to have been born around 1832. This makes him over 190 years old.

The geriatric giant tortoise resides on the island of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, where he has become a celebrated figure and somewhat of a local icon thanks to his longevity and Guinness World Record status.


Jonathan was brought to Saint Helena from the Seychelles in 1882 and has lived on the grounds of Plantation House, the official residence of the Governor of Saint Helena, ever since. His longevity is attributed to the care he receives, the mild climate of the island, and the species' naturally long lifespan.

Despite his age, Jonathan has retained much of his health, although, like many elderly creatures, he has faced some age-related challenges, including loss of vision and a reduced sense of smell. However, his caregivers ensure he maintains a nutritious diet and continues to enjoy a relatively active lifestyle for a tortoise his age.

Jonathan's remarkable age has made him a subject of interest among scientists and the general public, offering valuable insights into the care and longevity of giant tortoises.


Longest Living Fish: The Greenland Shark

The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) currently holds the Guinness World Records title for the longest lifespan for a vertebrate known to science. This remarkable species, found primarily in the cold, deep waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, has an estimated lifespan of over 250 years, with some individuals possibly living up to 500 years.

Studies that have examined the eye lens nuclei of Greenland sharks have provided insights into their extraordinary longevity. These analyses involve radiocarbon dating of the eye tissue, which has revealed that these sharks grow incredibly slowly and reach sexual maturity only at around 150 years of age.


The shark's extreme longevity is thought to be linked to their slow metabolism and the cold environment in which they live, which may contribute to a slower aging process compared to other species.

The longevity of Greenland sharks surpasses that of other long-lived vertebrates, such as bowhead whales and certain tortoise species.


Longest Living Animal on Record: Ocean Quahog Clam

The longest-living animal ever recorded is a clam known as the ocean quahog (Arctica islandica). One individual, nicknamed "Ming," holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest non-colonial animal ever discovered.

Ming was found in the waters off the coast of Iceland in 2006, and through carbon dating of its shell, scientists determined that it was around 507 years old at its discovery. This means Ming was born around the year 1499.


The age of ocean quahogs is determined by counting the growth rings on their shells, much like counting the growth rings of a tree to determine its age. Tragically, Ming's life was inadvertently cut short by scientists seeking to determine her age.

Unaware of her exceptional longevity, they opened her shell for routine analysis — a standard procedure in their research — which unfortunately resulted in Ming's demise.

The clam was named "Ming" in reference to the Ming Dynasty, which was in power when she was born. This incident underscored the delicate balance between scientific inquiry and preserving ancient life forms.


Oldest Living Wild Bird: Laysan Albatross

Wisdom, a Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), holds the title of the oldest known wild bird, as identified by researchers. Scientists first banded her in 1956 at Midway Atoll, located in the North Pacific Ocean.

Because she was already incubating eggs at that time, scientists estimated that she was at least five years old, which is the earliest age at which Laysan albatrosses typically begin to breed. This makes Wisdom over 70 years old, and remarkably, she continues to return to Midway Atoll to breed and successfully hatch chicks almost every year.


These birds are known for their impressive longevity, but Wisdom has surpassed the typical lifespan expected for her species. Her continued fertility and ability to raise chicks at such an advanced age have provided valuable insights into the biology and ecology of seabirds, challenging previous understandings of avian aging and reproductive potential.

Wisdom's extraordinary life has been closely monitored by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which has made her an icon of conservation and wildlife research. Her resilience, particularly in the face of environmental changes and human impacts on the oceans and seabird populations, offers hope and inspiration for conservation efforts worldwide.


Longest Living Animal: Immortal Jellyfish

This sea creature takes the crown as Earth's longest-living creature, as it can potentially live forever. Scientifically known as Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish is a small marine species renowned for its ability to revert to its juvenile polyp stage after reaching maturity, potentially allowing it to bypass death and achieve a form of biological immortality.

Its unique survival ability is typically deployed when the creature faces stressors such as injury or lack of food. The process enables it to reset its life cycle and produce genetically identical offspring. This trait has led to its nickname and fascinated scientists since its discovery in the 1990s.


This efficient cell recycling mechanism is a crucial focus in stem cell research, offering potential pathways for replacing cells damaged by disease.

4 More Long-living Sea Animals

We've explored some of the ocean's long-lived inhabitants, like the Greenland shark, bowhead whale and ocean quahog, but they aren't the only marine marvels with long lifespans.

1. Antarctic Sponges

The Antarctic glass sponge is a deep-sea organism with a skeleton made of silica, forming intricate, glass-like structures.


Residing in the frigid depths of the ocean floor around Antarctica, these glass sponges are believed to be the oldest living marine organisms, with estimates suggesting they could be over 10,000 years old.

2. Red Sea Urchins (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus)

Found along the Pacific Ocean coast of North America, the red sea urchin is a long-lived marine species known for its spiny exterior and ability to live for more than 200 years. The urchin's longevity is assessed by analyzing growth rings akin to those in tree trunks.

3. Deep-sea Tube Worms (Riftia pachyptila and Others)

Deep-sea tube worms are unique organisms that thrive near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, lacking a digestive system and relying on symbiotic bacteria for nutrition.

These worms can have lifespans extending over 250 years, a testament to their resilience in the extreme conditions of the deep ocean.

4. Orange Roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus)

This deep-sea fish is known to live for over 200 years. However, its slow growth and late maturity make it particularly vulnerable to overfishing, posing significant conservation concerns. This species is considered "Vulnerable" by the IUCN.


4 More Long-living Land Animals

We've covered the sea, so let's look at the world's longest-living animals who roam around on land, like our old pal Jonathan, the Seychelles giant tortoise.

1. Galápagos Tortoises

These tortoises are renowned for their long lifespans, with many individuals living over 100 years and some reported to be more than 150 years old. Their slow metabolism and island lifestyle are critical factors in their extended lifespans.


2. Tuatara

This reptile, indigenous to New Zealand, stands out for its potential to live over 100 years, with some unverified claims of tuataras reaching up to 200 years.

The reptile's unique biological characteristics, including a third "parietal" eye on its forehead and specific physiological and metabolic traits, contribute to its longevity.

3. Asian Elephants

In the wild, Asian elephants can live 60 to 70 years, but under human care in captivity, they can surpass 80 years. Their size and social structure — along with human protection from predators and provision of medical care — play roles in their longevity.

4. Macaws and Parrots

Known for their vivid colors and intelligence, some species of macaws and parrots, like the hyacinth macaw and grey parrots, can live beyond 50 years in the wild and up to 80 years in captivity, making them among the longest-lived bird species.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Frequently Asked Questions

What adaptations contribute to the longevity of the ocean quahog clam?
The ocean quahog clam's longevity is due to its slow metabolic rate and ability to protect itself from environmental stressors, such as cold temperatures and low oxygen levels, which reduce cellular damage over time. These clams can live over 500 years, with some individuals like "Ming" reaching around 507 years old.
How does the lifespan of the immortal jellyfish compare to other long-living animals?
The immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii) can potentially live indefinitely due to its unique ability to revert to its juvenile polyp stage when injured or stressed, essentially resetting its life cycle. This process of transdifferentiation allows it to avoid natural death, unlike other long-living animals that age progressively over time.