Brunnich's guillemots reach their 30s and then die quickly and suddenly, showing few signs of aging prior to death.
The guillemots, which look similar to penguins, expend substantial energy when diving. Researchers say their high metabolism and frequent dives should produce oxidative stress, causing the birds to deteriorate as they age. The birds, however, appear to stay fit and active as they grow older, maintaining their flying, diving, and foraging abilities.
"Not only do these birds live very long, but they maintain their energetic lifestyle in a very extreme environment into old age," said Kyle Elliott, a doctoral student at the University of Manitoba and the study's lead author.
"Most of what we know about aging is from studies of short-lived round worms, fruit flies, mice, and chickens, but long-lived animals age differently. We need data from long-lived animals, and one good example is long-lived seabirds."
One bird, nicknamed "Wayne Gretzky" by the researchers after the Canadian hockey great who played 20 seasons in the NHL and because the bird's identification band colors matched Gretzky's team colors, raised young for 18 consecutive years.
The findings were presented Tuesday at the Society for Experimental Biology meeting in Salzburg, Austria.
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