It’s been a rough week for marine scientist Paul Butler, who has been receiving hate mail after reports that he killed Ming — a 507-year-old Icelandic clam. The Bangor University professor told Metro the creature was already dead when his team examined it, and that the truth is far more significant.
Metro: Has the reaction shocked you?
Butler: Yes; the main problem is that English newspapers wrote articles based on an interview in Danish, and basically changed it to say we killed the clam. It was frozen when we collected it in Iceland: dead on arrival. Also, finding the age was not the main thing anyway.
So what have we learned from it?
The carbon dating suggests a slight weakening of the Gulf Stream during the Little Ice Age (1500-1850), and perhaps higher temperatures. In the context of global warming, we can work out the degree of change from the time of fossil fuel, and how much the ocean is absorbing. But if we put out a press release about that, it would have looked like we were trying to distract people from the clam.
Are there even older species than Ming?
No doubt. We took 2,000 shells and this was the oldest but there are millions in Iceland that would have lived longer. We took shells from a fishery area so anyone eating clam chowder might eat one the same age.
What’s their secret – can we copy them?
Hard to say; we think the resistance comes from protein. Also, because it’s so cold the clam metabolizes very slowly.
What’s the "big picture" project?
We are creating networks of chronologies going back 1,300 years, covering Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Northwestern Europe. The more detailed the picture, the more perspective we get on the environment as part of a global system.
Are you worried about more hate mail?
We will have to be clearer in our communication.