Continuing our occasional series of unusual (and amusing) deaths.
Let me relate to you the sad tale of Ming the mollusc. Ming was an ocean quahog, which is a cockle-shaped bivalve. The quahog has a thick, glossy shell, dark brown in colour, and can grow up to 13 centimetres in size. They live buried in sand and muddy sand to depths of up to 500 metres, often with their shells entirely hidden and with just a small tube extending up to the surface of the seabed. The siphon is used to breathe, capture food and expel waste. They are a particular favourite source of food for cod and are eaten by us humans too.
Well, our good friend Ming had managed to evade the attentions of the dwindling cod population and was happily minding its own business in the Icelandic seabed, doing whatever it is that quahogs do, until it was scooped up by researchers in 2006. The men (and women) in white coats from Bangor University popped him into a freezer, to attend to him at a later date.
The way to establish the age of a quahog is to count the growth rings on the hinge of its shell – a bit like the way you establish the age of a tree (after you have cut it down). The scientists dutifully counted the rings on Ming’s shell and established that he was 400 years old. This discovery was enough to ensure a place for the mollusc in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest living creature.
However, the scientists, according to a report in the must-read journal, ScienceNordic, decided to recalculate the creature’s age. The problem was that because the mollusc was so old many of the rings had run into each other, making it incredibly difficult to distinguish each line and count them.
The only way, they deduced, to get an accurate read of his age was to prise open the shell. Unfortunately, the act of prising the shell open did for the poor creature. The good news is that the scientists discovered that Ming was even older than originally thought, coming in at an impressive 507. The bad news is that the creature, which had been spawned in 1499, seven years after Columbus landed in the North American continent, is no more. A tragic waste for a creature that had minded its own business for so long and a shameful example of scientific incompetence. The scientists tried to put a brave face on the tragedy by saying that lots of quahorns are caught commercially and there is no telling whether molluscs even older than Ming perish during the process. OK, but you expect scientists to take more care of their specimens.
Reports do not establish whether the felony was compounded by serving Ming up on toast.
Ming the mollusc, rest in peace (or pieces)!