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What is the longest-lived marine mammal?

Scientists agree that the bowhead whale has the longest lifespan of all marine mammals.

bowhead whale and calf

Bowhead whale and calf in the Arctic (Marine Mammal Permit 782-1719). The inset drawing shows an 1884 illustration of a bowhead.

 Whales are the largest animals on Earth and live longer than all other mammals in the contemporary animal kingdom.

While many ocean lovers can easily identify the iconic sperm whale, the charismatic humpback and the wily orca, not all are familiar with the bowhead. According to scientists, this colossal year-round Arctic dweller may live 200-plus years. The bowhead’s lifespan may be the second-longest of all animals, topped only by the 500-year span of a North Atlantic clam called the ocean quahog.

The bowhead whale’s first claim to (scientific) fame was its humongous head, which houses the largest mouth of any animal—its highly arched shape gives the species its name—and may comprise nearly 25 feet of a mature male’s 65-foot length. The overall length of the bowhead is long enough to stretch across a four-lane highway with plenty of room on either side.

Any bio of the bowhead would not be complete without mentioning its weight, which ranges from 75-100 tons, and its 1.6-foot-wide layer of insulating blubber, which makes it very “well suited” to its icy environment.

The bowhead also sports, at up to 13 feet long, the longest baleen (filter-feeding organ) of its dozen baleen-whale “cousins.” Bowheads also boast two blowholes, as do all baleen whales.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has federal responsibility for protecting marine mammals and threatened and endangered marine life. With an estimated population of approximately 10,000, the bowhead whale is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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Corals may be the oldest living animals of all. Many corals appear to be a single organism, but they are actually colonies of genetically identical coral polyps that are constantly regenerating. Living deep-sea corals have been dated to be more than 4,000 years old!

Last updated: 01/20/23
Author: NOAA
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