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Meet Methuselah: At age 90 plus, she's the oldest fish in captivity in the U.S.


We have an affinity for animal stories on this program, also for BJ Leiderman, who does our theme music. And today, we celebrate Methuselah. Methuselah is an Australian lungfish who resides at the California Academy of Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, and she is over 90 years of age. Now, that's somewhat younger than her namesake, one of Noah's ancestors, who, it is said, lived to be 969 years old, but this formidable lungfish is believed to be the most senior living fish in any aquarium or zoo in the United States and possibly the world.

Charles Delbeek, curator at the Steinhart Aquarium, joins us now. Mr. Delbeek, thanks so much for being with us.

CHARLES DELBEEK: It's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you for speaking with me today.

SIMON: Tell us about Methuselah.

DELBEEK: Well, Methuselah is an Australian lungfish that the Steinhart Aquarium acquired back in 1938. The detail's a little fuzzy about how we actually acquired her, whether she was collected or who supplied her to us. And she's resided here ever since under our careful watch of our biologists for all those years.

SIMON: I mean, what's she like? Do you notice a personality?

DELBEEK: Of course. She's like a - basically like a little puppy dog. She's very mellow. She can be a little feisty. You know, she - they are a slow-moving fish, but they can have bursts of speed, and she can jump out of her tank if she really wants to or she's startled. But she's very gentle and very slow-moving and very easily handled.

SIMON: I have read she likes figs and belly rubs, which sounds like a good combination, by the way.

DELBEEK: It does. I like those things myself. But she is a bit picky, though. She won't eat any canned figs or any figs that are not in season.

SIMON: (Laughter).

DELBEEK: So it's only a seasonal treat for her.

SIMON: Oh, that's a real San Francisco lungfish, isn't it? Yeah, only...

DELBEEK: Yes, it is.

SIMON: ...Farm-to-table figs. How long do lungfish in captivity live?

DELBEEK: Well, under our care, we don't really know for sure because, clearly, she's the oldest. There was another lungfish - Australian lungfish at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago named Granddad, who passed away a few years ago. And he was in their care for 84 years. So that makes ours now the oldest in a collection in the United States and most likely in the world. There is a research group in Australia, and they are actually looking at dating the age of lungfish using their DNA. So we are going to be participating with them by sending samples of our animals. And by plotting these out on a graph, they'll be able to tell - project in the future what the age of a certain lungfish is.

SIMON: Wow. And do I have this right - lungfish can breathe out of water?

DELBEEK: Yes, hence their name. They actually have these rudimentary lungs. It's a very, very primitive fish. And so they actually gulp air from the surface. They're an air breather, so they need to come up to the top to gulp air.

SIMON: Oh, my word. How often do they do that?

DELBEEK: They do that, you know, every hour or so.

SIMON: What can we learn from Methuselah, do you think? I mean, I like the diet.

DELBEEK: Yeah. And patience, I think, probably is another thing. And take things slow. Take things easily. As I said, this research project we're working on, we're trying to find out how old these animals can actually be.

SIMON: Yeah.

DELBEEK: How old can they get? So this kind of research helps us to learn more about them. And also, who knows? Maybe they may unlock the secrets of longevity for ourselves.

SIMON: Charles Delbeek is curator at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. Thank you so much for being with us. And our regards to Methuselah, please.

DELBEEK: I will certainly pass those along, Scott. Thank you very much.


OPANKA: (Singing) Forever young. I want to be forever young. Do you really want to live forever? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.