Humans are clearly not the shortest-lived mammals. Dogs and cats, for example, have much shorter average lifespans. But our average longevity is just a drop in the bucket compared to that of bowhead whales.
Humans, for example, reach physical sexual maturity at around 12 or 13 years old, and sometimes even younger. Bowhead whales do not reach sexual maturity until about the age of 20, and may then enjoy intercourse for literally hundreds of years.
Even bowhead whales have their problems, though.
"Bowheads can carry parasites and harmful microbes, and without the benefits of medicine, this might result in discomfort and pain," de Magalhães explained.
"So even though bowheads can live longer than humans and appear to be protected from age-related diseases, I wouldn't assume they have a better quality of life."
Nevertheless, scientists are always looking for ways to extend human longevity. In the future, the researchers hope to identify specific genes in the whales that allow for this to happen. They have already identified gene ERCC1 as playing an important role in DNA repair.
De Magalhães and his team think it could be possible to manipulate the same, or similar, genes in humans to prevent aging and certain diseases.
Steven Austad, chair of the Biology of Aging and the Evolution of Life Histories Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told Discovery News that it's reasonable to conclude that changes in certain of the bowhead whale's genes associated with DNA repair may play a role in its exceptional longevity and ability to ward off cancer.
"This paper is an exciting and necessary start in trying to understand the exceptional longevity and cancer resistance of this very unusual species," Austad said.