Looking at life in the sea you can find countless animals that have extraordinarily long life spans. Whales are one of the longest-living mammals.
Bowhead whales are able to live for hundreds of years, making them one of the longest-living animals on earth.
Many wonder why bowhead whales have such lengthy lifespans. It is truly outstanding how long these sea mammals can actually live.
Today humans live longer than ever before. While our lifespans vary around the globe the average life expectancy is about 70 years old.
The development of modern medicine and increased sanitation has allowed humans to extend their lives, but how do whales do it?
Let’s take a look at why bowhead whales live so long, and other amazing facts about these long-lasting sea creatures.
What Are Bowhead Whales?
Whales are some of the largest animals on earth and are classified as cetaceans. Cetaceans include other sea mammals like dolphins and porpoises.
The bowhead whale is the 5th largest whale in the world, able to grow up to 60 ft. (18.2 m.) long, and weigh more than 120,000 lbs. (54,500 kgs).
These whales inhabit the arctic and subarctic waters around the globe.
The Bowhead whale is named after its enormous triangular-shaped head.
They have the largest mouth of any living animal, with their tongue alone weighing 1 ton (2,2004 lbs).
Their mouths are 16 ft. (4.9 m) long and are capable of opening up to 12 ft. (3.7 m) high, and 8 ft. (2.4 m.) wide.
They are one of the few whale species that make their home in the arctic waters year-round, which also includes narwhals and belugas.
Their large heads and blowholes are used to break arctic ice that is up to 2 ft. (0.6 m.) thick.
There are around 14 species of baleen whales, which includes the bowhead, and others like the humpback, minke, and gray whale.
Instead of teeth, these whales have baleens, which are made of keratin, and are used to strain food.
Baleens hang from the whale’s mouth, and the bowhead whale has the largest baleen in both size and number.
Diet of the Bowhead Whale
Small marine invertebrates like krill, copepods, and crustaceans are what the bowhead whales eat.
They feed on around 100 metric tons of crustaceans yearly, which helps sustain their massive size. Daily, they can eat up to 2 tonnes of food, or 4,400 lbs.
When swimming this whale keeps its large mouth open, continuously feeding on the animals like plankton it passes through.
Lifespan and Reproduction of The Bowhead Whale
The bowhead whale is the longest-living whale species on earth, and they are able to live for over 200 years.
Researchers from Australia’s CSIRO using genome research suggest that bowhead whales have a maximum lifespan of 268 years, which is 57 years longer than originally believed.
Their lifespans are much longer than other whale species, which on average only live between 40 to 100 years.
Bowhead whales along with their long lifespan also have one of the longest gestation periods in mammals, lasting between 13 to 14 months.
Breeding occurs year-round, and females are able to produce a calf only once every three to four years.
Sexual maturity for the bowhead whale is reached at around 25 years of age.
Why Do Bowhead Whales Live So Long?
Animals that live for long periods of time have different methods for defying the aging process.
So what is it that causes bowhead whales to live so much longer than other whales, and even most other life on earth?
Is it the freezing cold waters they live in, or maybe their diet?
What causes the bowhead whale lifespan to be high is actually in their DNA, and their ability to mitigate one of the deadliest diseases in the animal kingdom, cancer.
Bowhead wheels are able to repair their DNA extremely quickly and slow down the damage done to their genome.
Due to a gene called CDKN2C, the bowhead whale halts cell division, making them less susceptible to cancer.
This process is extremely effective, considering bowhead whales have around 100 times more cells than humans.
This gene makes the bowhead whale’s testes smaller, and in turn, makes it harder for them to reproduce.
Other animals like elephants do not live as long as the bowhead whale, but they also are highly resistant to cancers because of their genes.
Research also suggests that the slow growth rate and the late age of sexual maturity allow them to live longer.
The longest bowhead whale discovered was estimated to be around 211 years old, while other old timers found were estimated at 135, and 172 years of age.
Predators of Bowhead Whales
No animal is free from predators, and in the wild, there are multiple ways a bowhead whale’s life could be cut short.
Like with all animals humans are one of the main predators this whale faces.
They have been victims of whale hunting, which has caused their population to dwindle.
The transient killer whale is one of the main predators that the bowhead whale faces in the wild, leaving evidence such as scars on them.
Due to their immense size, it may take multiple killer whales to take out this large beast.
The bowhead whale is not really a social species, and they typically travel alone, or in pods of up to six members.
Bowhead whales communicate with each other to not only find food but also let each other know when a threat is near.
Studies have been able to identify around 60 different songs that bowhead whales use to communicate underwater.
Other Whale Lifespans
Living in the oceans across the globe, there are around 77 different species of toothed whales, and around 15 baleen whale species.
The bowhead whale has the longest lifespan of them all, but there are several others capable of living for long periods.
On average whales typically live between 20 to 100 years, with their species type being one of the main factors on how long they live.
Here are a few other lifespans of whales species that may shock you:
- Antarctica Blue Whale: On average blue whales live up to 80 to 110 years old. They are not only the largest whale species but are considered the biggest known animal to ever exist.
- Beluga Whale: Easily recognizable by their white coloring, and globe shaped head, belugas live for around 30 to 60 years.
- Sperm Whale: On average sperm whales usually live until 70 years old, but some have been reported to live up to 80 years old.
- Fin Whale: Found across the globe, fin whales are the second largest living animal, and live up to 90 years old.
- Gray Whale: Named after their slate gray coloring, gray whales have a lifespan estimated between 50 to 60 years.
- Humpback Whale: Being one of the world’s most recognizable whales in the world, humpback whales travel the world swimming thousands of miles, living for around 80 to 100 years.
- Narwhal: Despite their smaller size and unicorn horn, narwhals are a type of whale, and live at least 25 to 50 years of age.
- Dwarf Sperm Whale: As the smallest type of whale in the world, dwarf sperm whales only live for around 22 years.
Are Bowhead Whales Endangered?
Currently, under the IUCN bowhead whales have a global population status listed as “Least Concern”, but despite this there are several threats this animal faces.
Whaling is what greatly reduced the population numbers of the bowhead whale.
This caused them to be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and the Endangered Species Act in 1971 within the United States.
Commercial whaling for this giant first started in the early 1800s, lasting until the 1900s, and they were continually hunted for their meats and oils.
Globally around 4 stocks of bowhead whales are recognized, and estimations have their populations at a minimum of 50,000 in the wild.
The bowhead is not the only whale that faces population loss, as many cetaceans are threatened by poaching, pollution, and climate change.
Death from ships, beaching, and sickness are also other things that may cut a whale’s life short.
While one of the most unique animals on earth, cetaceans are also one of the most threatened.
Types of endangered or vulnerable whales include:
- North Atlantic Right Whale
- Sei Whale
- Blue Whales
- Western Gray Whale
- North Pacific Right Whale
- Fin Whales
- Sperm Whales
Despite their long lifespans bowhead whales and the other 90 types of whales are extremely vulnerable to population loss.
Steps like limiting poaching, slowing climate change, and keeping the ocean clean are the required actions needed to help preserve these ancient sea mammals that first appeared 50 million years ago.
Bowhead whales living more than 200 years may be impressive, but like other wildlife, there are countless amazing things to learn about them.
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