Lifespans of extinct animals revealed

By Andrea Wild

13 December 2019

3 minute read

How long did a woolly mammoth live for? What about a Neanderthal?

Our trusty team of researchers have discovered a simple way to estimate how long living and extinct animals lived using DNA. Using our method, we discovered extinct woolly mammoths lived for 60 years, five years less than the modern African elephant.

The recently extinct Pinta Island giant tortoise from the Galapagos lived for 120 years. To find out, we analysed the genome sequence of the last surviving member of the species, Lonesome George, who died in 2012. 😔

Tortoise with long neck (part of our research on extinct animals)

Vale Lonesome George. By I – Look from London, United States – lonesome george, CC BY 2.0,

Extinct animals: the secret’s in our DNA

“If we know a species’ genome sequence, we can estimate its lifespan based on a special type of DNA change called DNA methylation,” Dr Ben Mayne, a postdoctoral fellow with our Environomics Future Science Platform told us.

The human genome revealed the natural lifespan of humans is 38 years. That might sound alarming, but it matches what anthropologists estimate was the lifespan of early modern humans.

Lifestyle factors such as good nutrition, sanitation, and access to vaccines have increased our lifespan. We’ve seen this in recent times. Thirty-eight years is closer to the natural limit. It’s why the lifespan estimate of 39.7 years for chimpanzees, is close to their observed lifespan in the wild. Similarly, our close relatives the Neanderthals had a maximum lifespan of 37.8 years

Managing wild populations

As well as giving us fascinating insights into extinct animals, this discovery benefits fisheries and conservation management. Until now, managing wild populations has relied on observing how long animals live in the wild. This can be difficult for very long-lived species.

“Some species have very long natural maximum lifespans. We found that Bowhead whales can live for 268 years. This is 57 years longer than scientists believed after studying changes to the eye lens of deceased individuals,” Ben said.

Infographic revealing the lifespans of both living and extinct animals

Which animal are you closest to in age?

Flip, flop and fly, I don’t care if I die

We can calculate the maximum natural lifespan of any vertebrate species. Providing its genome has been sequenced. But lifespan estimation can’t predict how long an individual animal or person will live.

The good news is our research pinpointed a number of genes linked to lifespan. As a result, some of these are likely to be good targets for studying the ageing process in humans. One day, that may lead to some advances in slowing ageing or helping to manage some of its symptoms.

More than extinct animals take the test

To calibrate their method, researchers used genomes of animals with known lifespans from public databases. Such as NCBI Genomes and the Animal Ageing and Longevity Database.

“If you’re interested in finding out the lifespan of a vertebrate species, we can do that quickly and simply,” Ben said. “Our approach is much cheaper than any other method for estimating animal lifespan.”

This research involved our scientists and scientists from the University of Western Australia. The authors thank all individuals involved in the data creation, annotation and submission of the publicly available reference genomes used in this study.

The research, A genomic predictor of lifespan in vertebrates, in available to read in Scientific Reports.