WHALES MAY LIVE FOR TWO CENTURIES

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HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (December 20, 2000 – The Honolulu Advertiser)---Some of the whales out there now may have been swimming around during the U.S. Civil War. Or even when Thomas Jefferson was president.

In studies that could rewrite biology textbooks and establish whales as the longest-living mammals on Earth, scientists in Alaska and at the Scripps Institution of ‘Oceanography in La Jolla, California, have estimated the ages of three bowhead whales killed by Inupiat Eskimos in northern Alaska at 135 to 172 years.

When it was killed, a fourth bowhead whale was believed to be 211 years old, the researchers concluded.

The ages were determined by studying changes in amino acids in the lenses of the whales’ eyes.

Adding a layer of corroboration, Inupiat hunters in Barrow and other villages along the frozen north coast of Alaska have found six ancient harpoon points lodged in the thick blubber of freshly killed bowhead whales since 1981. The harpoon points are made of ivory and stone, two materials not used by native Alaskan whalers since the 1880s, when they were introduced to steel harpoons.

In other words, the whales apparently had been swimming around for more than 100 years after surviving earlier hunts by the Inupiats’ great-grandparents.

"This is just incredibly interesting," said Jeffrey Bada, a professor of marine chemistry at Scripps. "Maybe what we’re looking at are the survivors, the males who escaped hunting all those years."

At least two other scientists are now beginning different experiments to determine the whales’ ages.

If it turns out that bowhead whales, which live in the Beaufort and Bering seas between Russia and Alaska, can indeed survive to be 150 years old or more, they would be the oldest mammals on the planet.

Elephants and some parrot species have lived to 70 in captivity. Tortoises can live to 100. Some fish, such as the orange roughy and the Chilean sea bass, are believed to live past 100.

The oldest authenticated age to which any humans lived is 122 years. Jeanne Louise Calment, a Frenchwoman who met Vincent Van Gogh as a teenager, died at a nursing home in Arles, in southern France, in 1997.

Previously, the oldest whales were believed to be southern hemisphere blue and fin whales, estimated at up to 114 years old based on measurements taken from bony plugs in their ears. Such ear measurements do not work with bowheads.

"This just about doubles what everybody thought was the longevity of a large whale," said Steven Webster, senior marine biologist.

"Up to now, most whale books put longevity at 80 to 100 years, about the same as humans. It’s pretty astounding that whales swimming around out there now could have been swimming around during the Battle of Gettysburg when Lincoln was president."

Other whales across the globe also may be much older than previously thought.

"These are such poorly studied species, in terms of their age, behavior and everything," said Bada. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, if you want to know the truth."

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