A New Ming Dynasty?
Written by Dr Klaus L.E. Kaiser
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China was an era of significant advances in science and art. Europe also flourished, leaving the Middle Ages behind and embracing what became known as the Renaissance.
Many of Europe’s great cathedrals were built then and great artists like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564), and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) created many masterworks. Scientists like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Isaac Newton (1642-1726), and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) developed new methods to observe and understand nature in all its complexities. No doubt, all these artists, philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, etc., would have advanced the arts and sciences even more if they had lived for another decade or two. Longevity is a prerequisite for many great developments.
In the Plant Kingdom long-living organisms have been known for quite a while. As they are sessile (non-moving) organisms, they don’t need to spend any time or energy on moving around, finding prey or carrion and, therefore, can use all their available nutrients and energy for survival and reproduction. No wonder, some of them are known to be more than 4,000 years old and thriving like the giant redwood trees in California and Oregon. Even some of the thuja (white cedar) trees growing slowly on the limestone cliffs in southern Ontario are over 1,000 years old and still doing fine.
However, in the Animal Kingdom things are different. For example, two thousand years ago the common human life expectancy ranged in the 30-40 years. A thousand years later it was in 40-50 year range, but still short in comparison to today’s (developed world) life expectancy range of 70-80 years. The oldest human ever recorded is said to have reached an age of 122 years. Elsewhere in the Animal Kingdom the numbers are not much different. Few animals live for more than 50 years though some really slow moving large tortoises are thought to have made it to around 200+ years. Now, let’s go on and meet the longest-living known member of the Ming family.
Ming (ca. 1499-2006) was a member of the Animal Kingdom, not a large organism by any means, only about the size of your hand. At the time of his (or her) demise in 2006 at the hands of unsuspecting scientists, Ming was quite alive and thriving. Of course, poor Ming—not having many friends in high places – had no choice in the matter and was unable to defend him/herself against premature death. After all, having lived for 507 years in peace and quiet at a remote place offshore Iceland, there really was no reason to suspect a sudden change. Nevertheless it happened.
I hope you are still with me; I’ll try to keep it brief. The organism in question, nicknamed Ming has the scientific name Arctica islandica (Linnaeus, 1767) and is generally referred to as a quahog. When Ming’s age was first determined it was found to be ONLY 405 years; however, a more recent analysis (since then confirmed by several independent methods) brought Ming’s age in the year 2006 up to 507 years. Now that is still short of Methuselah’s biblical record of 969 years (give or take a few) but it’s in the ball park, at least in terms of other Animal Kingdom organisms. Furthermore, there are still live relatives of Ming out there, some of which could potentially be even older.
Poor Ming, the demised critter, now looks like that (see photo above).
Ming is a kind of clam, retrieved from the ocean near Iceland from approximately 100 ft depth in 2006. Its life history is recorded in minute crystals of calcium carbonate in its shell. In fact, even daily records can be seen from that. By analyzing various chemical element isotope ratios, like the 12-C[carbon]/13-C and Ba[barium]/C, or Pb[lead]/C ratios, periods of particular industrial use or environmental change can be noted and measured . For example, Dr. R.B. Schöne of the University of Mainz, Germany, has found that the ratio of lead (Pb) to calcium (Ca) levels in clams from different areas can show the influence of the widespread use of a lead derivative used as an anti-knock additive to gasoline during past decades, as evident from the graph below; source: .
The green dots show the lead/calcium ratio in clams offshore Virginia and the solid line the production of the gasoline additive, in contrast to the clams from Iceland (blue dots) where no significant change is noticeable. Of course, it’s a small jump to the idea to use Ming and its relatives to ascertain global changes, like the widely touted climate change. However, that is not as easy as it may appear. Individual specimens have longer periods of faster or slower growth depending on reproductive activity, food supply, water temperature and other confounding variables in nature.
Needless to say, much additional research is required. In other words, Ming may just be the forerunner of a research boom on the “new Ming dynasty”.
 R.B. Schöne, Arctica islandica (Bivalvia): A unique paleoenvironmental archive of the northern North Atlantic Ocean. Global and Planetary Change, 111: 199-225 (2013).