Scientists Discover the Oldest Confirmed Fresh-water Fish

An illustration of a buffalo fish: the animal which scientists say has broken a longevity record.

Scientists just added a large, sucker-mouthed fish to the growing list of centenarian animals that will likely outlive you and me.

new study using bomb radiocarbon dating describes a bigmouth buffalo that lived to a whopping 112 years, crushing the previous known maximum age for the species—26—by more than fourfold.

That makes the bigmouth buffalo, which is native to North America and capable of reaching nearly 80 pounds, the oldest age-validated freshwater bony fish—a group that comprises roughly 12,000 species.

“A fish that lives over 100 years? That’s a big deal,” said Solomon David, assistant professor at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, who was not involved in the study.

In recent years, thanks to more advanced aging techniques, scientists have discovered many species of fish live longer than originally thought—the Greenland shark, for instance, can live past 270 years. Despite the age of fish being a basic aspect of their biology, we often know very little about a fish’s expected lifespan.

Carbon dating

Before the study authors even aged a single fish, they had a hunch that these fish, which live mostly in the northern U.S. and southern Canada, lived longer than thought.

The team removed thin slices of otolith—small calcified structures that help fish balance while they swim—from 386 wild-caught bigmouth buffalo, most of which were harvested by bowfishers. The researchers then used a microscope to count the growth rings on each slice of otolith. Their first counts yielded estimates of fish that live more than 80 and 90 years old. (Related: “Meet the animal that lives for 11,000 years.”)

When study leader Alec Lackmann first saw those numbers, he says his reaction was: “There’s no way!”

To validate these extraordinary age estimates, Lackmann, a graduate student at North Dakota State University, and colleagues turned to bomb radiocarbon dating, a well-established method that compares the amount of the isotope carbon-14 in animal tissue to concentrations of carbon-14 released in the mid-1900s during atomic bomb testing. The method has been used to age everything from human remains to sharks.

They then cross-checked their otolith results with bomb radiocarbon dating and found a match—validating the estimates of a lifespan between 80 and 90 years, according to the study, recently published in the journal Communications Biology.

In total, five bigmouth buffalo surpassed 100 years of age, but a 22-pound female caught near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, became the 112-year-old record-setter. “She was actually on the smaller end of the mature individuals,” Lackmann notes.

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SOURCE: National Geographic, Sean Landsman