How long do they live?  Well over 200 years old if they avoid being harpooned. One was estimated to be 211 years old thanks to some very old harpoon gear stuck in its blubber, coincidentally it was newer harpoons that got him in the end [1].  These whales start to slow down aging around 40 to 50 years old [2]. The genome of this giant has been sequenced and 2 genetic factors may contribute to their long lifespans, one being a mutation in the gene ERCC1, which is involved with DNA repair and replication.  This could also be why the Bowhead whale doesn’t show signs of cancer with aging. Also found was a duplicated section of DNA in the gene PCNA, which is responsible for DNA repair and cell growth and may also contribute to how the Bowhead whale achieves longevity [3].

Figure 1 shows the range of the Bowhead whale. So cold. So very cold.

Where are they found? Really cold ocean water: Arctic and sub-arctic areas, see figure 1.

What do they eat? Bowhead whales use something called baleen plates to filter water and take in plankton. So, they’re pretty much gentle giants, and easy targets for harpoons, see figure 2.

Figure 2. Nothing like happy bonding time with your child while standing on the massive corpse of a very old, gentle, filter feeding whale. At what point did our species gain empathy? And at what time point did we blatantly disregard that empathy?

What do they look like? Bowhead whales are one of the largest whales in the world (the blue whale is the largest) and they can grow to 55 feet in length and weigh 100 tons. That’s just, wow.

Figure 3. That’s just its head! They’re enormous.

How do they reproduce? Through sexual reproduction. The average age of sexual maturity for bowhead whales is 15 – 20 years old and they usually only birth 1 calf at a time, every 4 – 7 years. I can’t seem to nail down any information on when the Bowhead whale stops reproducing.

How do scientists know how old they are? Rather than just make a guess based on the many weapons lodged in a whale, researchers use a technique called amino acid racemization. Aspartic acid racemization studies on the whale’s eye lens allow scientists to use what they know about aspartic acid to find out what they don’t know about a whale’s age. So, researchers know the amount of time that it takes aspartic acid to change chemically from its “L” form to its “D” form, and they can use that knowledge to make a pretty good estimation of the ages of whales [2].

So what are we lacking? There’s still a lot of questions about the differences in SOD1 expression and telomere length in these whales, along with their reproductive cycle. There’s information regarding the genome of Balaena mysticetus published in a 2015 paper entitled “Insights into the Evolution of Longevity from the Bowhead Whale Genome,” and available at the Bowhead Whale Genome Resource. The mitochondrial genome is uploaded to NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information).

Conservation status: Currently least concern in some places and threatened in others.

Please contact me if you have information that will add to the understanding of bowhead whale longevity.

  1. Magalhães, João Pedro. “The big, the bad and the ugly.” EMBO reports 16.7 (2015): 771-776.
  2. George, John C., et al. “Age and growth estimates of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) via aspartic acid racemization.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 77.4 (1999): 571-580.
  3. Keane, Michael, et al. “Insights into the evolution of longevity from the bowhead whale genome.” Cell reports 10.1 (2015): 112-122.