Old Ladies of the Sea


It’s no fish tale: The Greenland shark is the longest-lived vertebrate on the planet, a new study says. (Nat Geo News)

Use our lessons, media, and articles to learn more about sharks.

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NGS Picture Id:515213
Greenland sharks like this one may live to be 500 years old. (Yeah, that’s a parasite on its eye, something most Greenland sharks live with.)
Photograph by Nick Caloyianis, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas


  • How did scientists estimate the age of Greenland sharks?
    • They looked deep, deep into their eyes … No, really.
      • Greenland sharks have a unique eye structure in that the lens grows throughout an animal’s lifetime. The older an animal gets, the more layers are added to the lens. Scientists can’t count the layers as they would tree rings, but they can remove all the layers that have been added over the years until they reach the center, or the embryonic nucleus, of the lens … Scientists can analyze the chemical composition of the eye lens nucleus to estimate an animal’s age.”
        • Yes, sharks have to be dead for scientists to poke out and study their eyes like this, but rest assured, no Greenland sharks were harmed in the research. Scientists analyzed 28 female Greenland sharks accidentally killed as bycatch.



  • Do Greenland sharks pose threats to humans?
    • Physically? Not really. At 6.4 meters (21 feet) and 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds), they’re definitely big enough to attack humans, but there are no documented incidents. There are at least two good reasons for this:
      • Greenland sharks are very, very slow-moving animals. In fact, marine biologists are somewhat puzzled at how they prey on much faster species such as fish and seals. (Although they’ve been observed feeding, Greenland sharks have never been observed actually hunting. This seems like a job for Crittercam! Here’s how Crittercam helped solve another marine mystery involving predation.)
      • Greenland sharks inhabit fairly deep waters in the Arctic Ocean basin. If you’re swimming 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) beneath the Arctic ice … you’ve got bigger problems than sharks, buddy.
    • Unthreatening, but unpleasant: Eating the uncooked flesh of Greenland sharks can make you really, really sick. The effect of consumption mimics the effect of extreme drunkenness. The meat is somewhat toxic to humans due to an abundance of trimethylamine oxide and urea—the same chemical compound that gives urine its name. (These chemicals act as antifreeze agents in the shark’s blood, preventing it from forming ice crystals in deep, cold water.)
    • Far from a threat, Greenland sharks are an important part of Inuit myth and legend. A wonderful creation story explains the fish’s urine smell: An old Inuit woman washed her hair in urine (people still do this, due to detergent-like antibacterial properties) and dried it with a cloth. The cloth blew into the sea and became Skalugsuak, the first Greenland shark.


  • OK, so do humans pose a threat to Greenland sharks?
    • Yeah, of course we do. The biggest threats to Greenland sharks are fishing, climate change, and loss of habitat.
      • Although the Greenland shark fishery is small, the sharks are very often the victims of bycatch.
      • Climate change is warming Greenland shark habitat in the Arctic. If the sharks or their prey are not able to adapt to a warmer ocean, their population may be at risk.
      • Their habitat is threatened by “many countries’ increased focus on the Arctic for fishing, oil, and other natural resources.”



Nat Geo: 272-Year-Old Shark Is Longest-Lived Vertebrate on Earth

The Atlantic: The Sharks That Live to 400

Nat Geo: Shark resources

(extra credit!) Science: Eye lens radiocarbon reveals centuries of longevity in the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus)

One thought on “Old Ladies of the Sea

  1. Nature is always wonderful.. The way to find the age of Greenland shark is very interesting by their eyes and thanks to technology also to calculate the age.. Last but not least of course thanks to Nat geo for sharing such a good information…

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