Are There Animals That Don’t Age? Do We Want That?

(Last Updated On: September 6, 2020)

Are There Animals That Don’t Age? Do We Want to Be Them?

Aging. It’s perhaps an uncomfortable thought; according to the American CDC some 75% of deaths in the US are attributed to those 65 and older. This quite morbid website will roughly calculate when you’ll die so you can watch the days slowly tick by as we all waste away in our stolen quarantine time. It’s one of those things that many don’t like to think about–and quite a few probably fantasize about not having to deal with aging (or our loved ones aging) at all. But what if we told you that some animals don’t ever have to worry about aging? Well you’d probably ask if there even are animals that don’t age. Would we even want that power?

Becoming Young Again

Perhaps one of the most popular animals for the “immune to aging” discussion is the Japanese Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish. If you’ve ever wanted to just return to your golden years and de-age a bit, this jelly blob might have you covered.

Actually, it might have you a bit too covered. Jellyfish aren’t all born in their tentacled forms but smaller, they have larval forms called planulae. Those actually anchor themselves to the seafloor for a time as polyp colonies. Eventually these colonies make the once again free-swimming jellies we’re familiar with. 

What makes our immortal jellyfish special is its uncanny ability to go from sexually mature to sexually immature basically at will. Well, whether or not jellyfish have free will is another concern, considering they have no central nervous systems to speak of.

Point is, when injured, sick, or otherwise distressed, Turritopsis dohrnii can turn itself into a polyp–thus creating a new polyp colony. Which means yes, this is also a viable way for the jelly to continue propagating. Which means if you were to keep them in a vacuum of perfect water and stuff, these jellyfish could probably indefinitely age and de-age.

Of course, there are always natural checks against this, and colonies of the jellies are quite difficult to keep and the jellies are still susceptible to predation or diseases that kill faster than they can de-age.

One of the few long-term captive colonies is held by a scientist named Shin Kubota, whose jellies have rebirthed around 11 times. He says they’re cute.

Just Be Called a Hydra

No really, we don’t mean the mythical creature. There’s a genus of freshwater buggers named Hydra (which means it also gets to be in italics). Like the mythical hydra these animals possess some pretty neat regenerative abilities. Though unlike multi-headed lizards, they do not grow back two heads if you cut one off. Chiefly, they don’t really have heads at all. They don’t even have an obviously recognizable brain or muscles. But they do multiply just like those hydra heads. But one of these guys in half and they’ll eventually regenerate into two separate creatures. Which, if they were dragon sized, is definitely worse than just getting more heads.

Lacking these complex structures probably helps with these regenerative abilities, and these critters aren’t known to be subject to senescence–aka biological aging. 

Quick talk on how aging works, a large part of what causes aging is the destruction of the telomere. They’re kind of like these buffers at the end of our chromosomes. As our cells divide, they basically make photocopies of themselves. If you’ve ever photocopied a photocopy a bunch of times, you know eventually things degrade. The telomeres act as a neat shield, keeping critical information from being destroyed just a little longer.

The Hydra genus is capable of maintaining the lengths of its telomeres, and over the course of a 4 year study they showed no notable increase in mortality with their age. Might not be impressive, but they reach maturity in about a week–which would be like condensing your birth to the end of high school into five days. 

Something More… Complicated

We’ve been looking at animals that have very simple or small bodies. Things that could fit on a petri dish in your mini fridge. 

But what if we told you there was something bigger, something we see quite often at the supermarket?

That exists, and it’s the oversized sea-bug with claws that we call lobsters.

Pinning down lobster age is far from easy, but marine biologists estimate their out-of-captivity lifespans to hit around 50 years at a soft cap. Mostly because, you know, they keep growing and then get eaten. 

But lobsters actually don’t show any signs of physical degradation with age. In fact, older lobsters might actually be more fertile than their younger counterparts. This may be due to telomerase, an enzyme that can (to put it simply) repair those telomeres we were talking about earlier. Many vertebrates stop expressing telomerase by the time they reach adulthood, but not so for lobsters.

That means lobsters have only one limiting factor to their age–getting too fat. Some of the oldest have aged to over 130 years; a 132 year old 22 pound lobster named Louie was released from captivity in 2017 after 20 years in captivity. So… Some fish probably got a nice snack? Some of the oldest have hit 140 years and 40+ pounds. 

How Do Lobsters Die?

Obviously lobsters can die, they get sick or eaten. We eat them all the time. But they can kind of die by aging. Sadly, their limitation is their shells. Because lobsters seemingly cannot die by senescence like we (and most other organisms), they basically die in their own self-made prisons.

Because lobsters don’t stop growing, they need to keep molting–otherwise their shells will basically strangle them to death. But that also means the lobster has to be able to break their own shells–which gets progressively more and more difficult despite an increasing size. 

So eventually, lobsters can’t break their shells anymore, and those shells basically fall apart around them. Then they get infections and die. 

That’s not to mention that a freshly molted lobster is super squishy, and looks like a great treat to a predatory fish. Especially when the lobster gets even bigger. 

So having your own exoskeleton become your coffin because you’re too weak is quite morbid. Luckily we have the cooler, less maintenance-heavy endoskeleton.

Do We Even Want Immortality?

Alright, let’s get a little philosophical here. There’s the whole deal with the cryonics industry. Which is quite… questionable in how it runs, but we guess if you want to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology that doesn’t exist yet (and might not ever exist) that’s a you thing.

But that’s not the point. Let’s assume you could live forever impervious to all disease and other violent causes of death. Well you’re going to outlive the universe, and that’s a lot of time to have to yourself. That’s not even mentioning the cliche counterpoints to immortality like watching everyone you know and love age.

Further Reading: When Will the Universe End?

There’s also the aspect of memory. You’ve probably been alive for a cheeky handful of thousands of days (1,000 days is about 2.7 years) and you definitely can’t name a single thing about most of them. So magnify that by millions, billions, or even trillions of years, and you’re probably going to lose a depressing amount of knowledge.

But let’s assume you’re biologically immortal and not impervious to everything. That means the probability of some disaster, vehicular accident, fire, or otherwise happening to you approaches 100% over time. If you’re not going to die by age or disease, you’re consigning yourself to die by a much less peaceful way. 

Like lobsters? See if your state produces the most here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.