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How long do great white sharks live?

Jan 09, 2014

The fallout from nuclear bomb tests has revealed that the marine predator can live for over 70 years.

Although everyone knows the theme tune from Jaws, not so much is known about the life cycle of the fish that film made famous. Until recently it was thought that great whites lived until about 20 years old, a figure reached by analysing the vertebrae in shark skeletons. The skeleton is built up by adding different layers throughout a shark’s life, and scientists counted these layers like the rings in a tree trunk to reveal a specimen’s age. However, this technique proved difficult because sharks have skeletons made of cartilage – a type of flexible tissue in which different layers are harder to spot than in bones.

Scientists in America now believe that great whites might live as long as humans after studying atomic isotopes found in the tissue of four male and four female great white sharks caught between 1967 and 2010. These isotopes came from the fallout of nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s which fell into the sea and were absorbed by marine animals. This showed that the sharks must have been alive at the time, with the oldest specimen being around 73 years old.

Yet although individual great white sharks might live longer than thought, the species as a whole is in danger of dying out due to hunting, and the scientists hope greater understanding of the great white’s life will help conservation programmes designed to protect it in the future.

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