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Death By Discovery: How Earth’s Oldest Organisms Were Found, and Killed

In 2013, the discovery of “Ming the Mollusk”, purported to be the oldest clam of its kind and, in truth, the oldest living bivalve period, was making headlines. Not only for the fact that it was determined to be 507 years old—making the clam 102 years older than initially thought—but also for the ironic fact that Ming’s discovery also marked its departure from this world.

In other words, dating the world’s oldest mollusk also meant killing it.

Above: 507-year-old clam shell, dubbed “Ming”, retrieved from the Icelandic shelf in 2006 (Credit: Bangor University, Maine).

The controversy, dubbed “Clam Gate” by the BBC, led to wide criticism of the scientists involved, with accusations of recklessness for their treatment of Ming. However, all was not quite as it had been reported; “Ming”, the 507-year-old clam, was already dead by the time its age was determined, as were the other 200 clams that the scientists had taken for sampling, having been frozen after they were collected live from the Icelandic shelf in 2006.

“All 200 clams were killed when they were frozen on board to take them home,” National Geographic reported. “They didn’t find out how old Ming was until they were back in the lab and looked at its shell under a microscope.”

So maybe Ming wasn’t quite the martyr he had been made out to be.

This wasn’t the only time controversy has erupted around the fatal means by which the age of an organism has been determined. The oldest non-clonal (that is, not having been derived from an earlier organism of identical genetic heritage) organism ever discovered wasn’t even an animal; it was a bristlecone pine tree, which existed along a former glacier on Wheeler Peak in the Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada.

Dubbed “Prometheus” by a group of naturalists toward the beginning of the 1960s, the tree was one of several of the largest trees growing in a grove, accessible only by hiking off trail to the area where the trees grew. Its technical designation (far less flashy), was WPN-114, dubbed so by researcher Donald Currey, the first to have named it (this name was purely a result of his categorization system; Prometheus was the 114th tree he labeled while working in White Pine County).

In 1964, Currey, then a graduate student working with U.S. Forest Service personnel, elected to cut down Prometheus for research purposes; at the time of course, the enigmatic tree’s age wasn’t known, and the circumstances leading up to the decision remain somewhat controversial even today, considering that once they judged the tree’s age by means of dendrochronology (that is, the rings in the cross-section of the tree), it was revealed that Prometheus was at least 4,862 years old, although it could have been more than 5000 at the time it was downed.

The Prometheus Stump, Great Basin National Park, Nevada. 

Hence the remaining controversies over why the tree had been cut down in the first place. Currey had been hoping to use the dendrochronological data to aid his study of the Little Ice Age, which only occurred several hundreds of years ago, not thousands. There is some dispute over whether Currey knew just how old the tree was, or in particular, whether it was such an ancient, non-clonal sample.

Today, Prometheus is remembered among the similar instances where life on earth–some of it the oldest in existence–has succumbed at the foot of scientists.

Granted, there is a bright side to all of this, particularly in the case of Prometheus. News of the controversy helped spur efforts toward protecting the bristlecone pines, along with other species in what became protected areas of National Parks across the country. Hence, Prometheus did, in a sense, become something of a martyr for the conservation movement; additionally, the 5,000 years or so of tree-ring data it provided has been a useful record for studying everything from climate data over the last several thousand years, to other aspects of the ancient world.

Even the knowledge gleaned from Prometheus does little to curb the worries that arise from the destructive nature of human inquiry. Logic would tell us the rarest, and very oldest life on our planet should be protected at all costs, shouldn’t it?

To end on a happier note, we are fortunate to be able to report the safe passage from captivity of “Louie,” a 132-year-old lobster (!!!) that was recently released from captivity. For the last 30 years, his home had been Peter’s Clam Bar, a Long Island-based restaurant.

Louie’s “pardon” was granted in conjunction with June, which is apparently also “National Lobster Month.” He was released into the ocean waters beside the restaurant, near Island Park.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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