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Finding Grandpa On My Dinner Plate (Part 2)

Old man faces old lobster — on his dinner plate.

I could tell you stories about guys who sit down to lobster dinners (there are several; I've even done one myself ) and the waiter says, "May we suggest ..." and he shows the man a very, very large lobster. The larger the lobster, the older it is, and this one, he says, taking it out of the tank, is 50 or 60 years old. "Really?" says the diner, who is not yet 50, or maybe he is fifty and he and the lobster are the same age. And he looks. The lobster is indeed big, sitting on a plate. There's a silence. The man considers ...

... and decides no, he is not going to eat this lobster. Instead, he's going to buy the lobster, and, in an act of fellow feeling and oldie-to-oldie solidarity, he's going to hire a boat, and take the lobster back to the ocean, gently placing it overboard, where he hopes it will happily sink down, settle in and have another decade or two of salty and contented old age. (Don't believe me? Listen to this Radiolab episode.

There's a science writer I've been reading this week, J.B. MacKinnon, who suggests that the older we get, the more likely we are to reach out to other animals who are old like we are. Maybe it's a habit of aging, this across-species affinity.

In Orion Magazine, MacKinnon tells the story of an older man — a retired wheelwright named William Keyte — who lived in England in the 1850s, and came to a pond every day to sit and muse and feed the fish. One fish in particular, an old trout, got so used to Mr. Keyte, MacKinnon says, that it "would rise whenever its fellow elder approached the shore. At times the fish would eat from Mr. Keyte's hand; at others, presumably, the pair would simply pass some time regarding one another across the infinite divide between species."

Man visits with trout.
Robert Krulwich / NPR

If you go to that pond in Blockley, England today, there's a gravestone that reads, "In Memory of the Old Fish." You can see it here with its inscription, "He was so tame, you understand, he would come and eat out of our hand." The trout died on April 20, 1855; it was 20 years old. Mr. Keyte arranged for the burial.

Old Age Empathy?

Is there something about getting old that produces fellow feeling — even between a person and a fish? Do older creatures recognize a kind of wisdom in each other? We don't know. We aren't even sure if growing older produces any wisdom. It seems right that experience matters, especially in animals that store memories, but how useful those memories are, we can't say. Though we have hints.

In the early 1990's a scientist named George Rose decided to study the migratory habits of cod. For most of the 20th century, millions and millions of cod crowded together in the North Atlantic, crisscrossing from Europe to Canada and back, making their way through underwater mountain ranges and ravines — down deep, moving from feeding grounds to spawning grounds. Rose tried to calculate where they were, how they did it, so he measured water temperatures, mapped the sea bottom and came up with a set of predictions.

Then, using echo-sounders, he looked. And sure enough, the cod were pretty much where he'd imagined they'd be — with one curious extra.

Old cod leads his followers
Robert Krulwich / NPR

Rose noticed that at the head of each pack of moving fish, leading the way, there were always big individuals. He could see them on his read-outs, "black smudges at the head of every school." Scouts, they called them, says MacKinnon. As with lobsters, the bigger the cod, the older the cod, so it appeared that the oldest fish were guiding the others. Old cod can last 25 years.

Rose wondered, if these oldsters are remembering, how do they do it? Do they have signposts? Are they recalling previous journeys? "Was he really watching fish that had the wisdom and memory of years, that were keepers of knowledge passed down through generations?"

He never found out, because in 1993, the cod migration — already weakened by overfishing — collapsed. There were still cod off the shores of Newfoundland, but, says MacKinnon, "they were little things, never more than 5 years old. And for the first time in 500 years of written history, the ancient migration failed to take place."


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