Clam-gate: The epic saga of Ming

Ming the clam Ming the clam reached the age of 507

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The discovery that a clam called Ming reached the age of 507 has made headlines around the world.

As has the news that the scientists behind the find accidentally killed the poor old (very old) bivalve in the process of trying to work out its age.

It's an epic shellfish saga, with all the makings of a rather tasty story.

But dig a little deeper, and there's more lurking beneath the shell of this morsel of news.

"We've had emails accusing us of being clam murderers," laments Prof James Scourse from Bangor University in Wales.

Various other reports suggested that the team has bungled its research.

But that's not the case, Prof Scourse tells BBC News.

Clamity

Start Quote

Anyone who has eaten clam chowder in New England has probably eaten flesh from this species”

End Quote Clam research team Bangor University

Ming the clam - so called because it hails from the age of the Chinese dynasty - was first found in 2006 during an expedition to Iceland.

The Bangor University team was interested in studying these animals, called ocean quahogs (Arctica islandica), for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, because these clams are known for their longevity, and could provide clues about the science of ageing.

And secondly, they can tell us about the history of the oceans.

With each year, they add a new ring to their shell, and analysing these can provide information about changes in the oceans and the climate during their lifespan.

But to do this, sections of their shell need to be taken and studied. And once the clam is opened, it dies, explained Prof Scourse.

BBC Science Editor David Shukman finds out how clams can shed light on climate change

At first there was nothing to suggest that Ming was any different to the other clams collected.

But in 2007, an initial count of the rings in its shell suggested the bivalve was a record-breaking 405-410 years old.

And now the elderly clam has made the headlines again, because a new more detailed analysis suggests it had lived for more than half a millennium.

The Bangor team says the notion that they knew in advance that it was the longest-lived species and then deliberately destroyed it is incorrect.

Instead, the researchers say Ming was part of a wider study, and just turned out to be very old.

They add: "The same species of clam are caught commercially and eaten daily; anyone who has eaten clam chowder in New England has probably eaten flesh from this species, many of which are likely several hundred years old."

Others, against consuming creatures or using them for science, might disagree about the merits of using the clams in this way.

These creatures are also threatened by dredging and ocean acidification.

But while Ming has captured the world's attention, it might not be a one off.

Scientists believe there is a high probability that there are ocean quahogs that are even more ancient lurking beneath the sea bed.

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