What Animal Lives the Longest?

By Ethan Shaw; Updated April 24, 2017
A Galapagos tortoise at an Australian zoo lived to 176 years old.

Even if it escapes spiders and flyswatters, a housefly survives on the order of mere weeks. Indeed, we measure the lifespan of many creatures -- especially tiny ones -- in months. Certain members of the animal kingdom, though, fall far on the other side of the longevity scale, capable of living for centuries or even millennia. Against certain sea sponges or marine clams, the oldest human is but a fresh-faced upstart.

Invertebrate Champions

Research suggests that hexactinellid sea sponges in Antarctic waters may live more than 10,000 years. By analyzing their chitin- and keratin-based skeletons, meanwhile, scientists dated deep-sea black corals in the Gulf of Mexico, retrieved from depths of 300 meters (984 feet) and greater, at 2,000 years old. The mud clam, or ocean quahog, a deepwater bivalve of the North Atlantic, can live at least a half-millennium. Most head-spinning of all, though, is the immortal jellyfish, which appears to possess the capability to live indefinitely -- if not killed by predators or infection -- by cycling back and forth between juvenile and adult stages.

Venerable Vertebrates

Animals with backbones don’t quite compare in the lifespan department with invertebrates, but nonetheless include some impressively durable species. The bowhead whale, a heavy-bodied baleen whale of Arctic waters, may live at least two centuries, its longevity partly betrayed by the presence of 19th-century harpoon points in the flesh of whales killed by Inuit hunters in the 2000s. A 2007 Nature article report that the Inuit have long claimed -- correctly, as scientific studies now bear out -- that bowheads can live the equivalent of “two human lifetimes.” Giant tortoises, various rockfish, lake sturgeon and a primitive lizard called the tuatara may all make it to 100 to 200 years old or more.

Humans and Other Primates

The oldest person on record was a Frenchwoman named Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at age 122. While such lifespans certainly aren't the norm, human beings are impressively long-lived compared with most other mammals: In 2012, the World Health Organization reported the global average human life expectancy at birth was 70 years. No other primate is known to live as long, though monkeys such as the black-faced spider monkey and olive baboon, and great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, may thrive for four or five decades. Among tarsiers, monkeys, apes and human beings -- but not lorises or lemurs -- larger brain size appears to be correlated with longer lifespan.

Physiological Traits Promoting Super-longevity

The biology of aging -- in humans and other organisms -- is still rich in mystery, but scientists have identified some potential physiological characteristics and processes that may dictate a longer life for certain creatures. At a basic level, a slower metabolism -- such as that exhibited by some cold-water organisms like the bowhead whale and Antarctic sea sponges -- may be conducive to an extended lifespan. A study on the mud clam suggested the mollusk’s longevity may correlate with reduced levels of lipid oxidation in the membranes of its mitochondria, a biochemical process apparently associated with cellular aging in some organisms. The mechanism by which the adult immortal jellyfish prolongs its life involves reverting its cells back to the younger phases of cyst and colonial polyp, a turning-back of the clock that seems to be triggered by survival threats such as diminished food supplies or physical injury.

About the Author

Ethan Shaw is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written extensively on outdoor recreation, ecology and earth science for outlets such as Backpacker Magazine, the Bureau of Land Management and Atlas Obscura. Shaw holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.