The oldest aquarium fish in the world lives in San Francisco. She likes belly rubs

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When Methuselah the Lungfish arrived at the Steinhart Aquarium in 1938, Al Capone was locked up in Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge had been open for less than a year, and Willie Mays was 6 years old.

Methuselah’s exact age is not known, but he is believed to be at least 90 years old; the oldest fish living in a zoological environment. California Academy of Sciences senior biologist Allan Jan says he doesn’t think much about any of this. As the keeper of the fish, he is more concerned with whether Methuselah will eat his figs today – she will only eat them when they are in season, not if they are frozen and thawed.

“She’s picky,” Jan said. “And being this old, I allow him to be picky.”

Methuselah is special for reasons other than his age and penchant for fresh fruit. Lungfish are “living fossils” that can breathe on land and in water. The evolutionary benefits of the lungfish include the ability to survive in mud until the rains return and use limb-shaped pectoral fins to move from pond to pond.

“These are very, very primitive fish,” says Jan, a native of the Bay Area who worked at the Steinhart Aquarium for 15 years, tending to Methuselah most of the time. “They’re kind of the link between fish and amphibians. They actually have a lung, so they have to breathe air.

I have known Methuselah from my own childhood in the 1980s, when the fish was already celebrated for its longevity. (“My God, I hope that’s not on the menu at Tadich (Grill),” wrote Chronicle Herb Caen columnist in 1992.)

As I finished recording one of The Chronicle’s first audio tours on the VoiceMap app last month – “Secrets of Golden Gate Park: Graft, Gunfire and a 90-Year-Old Fish” – I contacted Cal Academy for a post-pandemic health check, confirming that “Methuselah is alive and well.”

Senior biologist Allan Jan has looked after Methusaleh the Australian lungfish for much of the past 15 years at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Herbert Hoover was president when the fish were caught, and he has been a resident of the Steinhart Aquarium for over 80 years.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Methuselah arrived in San Francisco on a steamboat from Queensland, Australia – a Matson ocean liner – in 1938. She had grown up and would be at least 7 years old. The name Methuselah is a biblical reference; he was Noah’s grandfather, who lived to be 969 years old. Methuselah the fish is now about 3 1/2 feet long and 40 pounds, and is probably still growing. Jan said even the older lung fish continue to grow.

His first appearance in The Chronicle was in 1947.

“The most valuable fish in the Steinhart aquarium are a pair of Australian lungfish,” a 1947 column read. “These strange creatures – with green scales resembling fresh artichoke leaves – are known to exist. scientists as a possible “missing link” between terrestrial and aquatic animals. “

While many of the memorable exhibits from the old Steinhart Aquarium are long gone, including Pacific white-sided dolphins and a rescued manatee named Butterball, several of the fish and reptiles have established an impressive tenure. Jan said the museum’s alligator guys – large, freshwater fish with rows of razor-sharp teeth – are between 50 and 60 years old, and the Snapping Turtles are probably in their 70s. The second oldest lungfish in the Steinhart Aquarium is at least 60 years old.

When the Shedd Aquarium “Grandfather” lungfish died in 2017, after 84 years in the Chicago Museum, Methuselah became the oldest aquarium fish in the world.

Columnist Herb Caen wrote about Methuselah the Lung Fish in 1992.

Columnist Herb Caen wrote about Methuselah the Lung Fish in 1992.

Chronicle Archives

A behind-the-scenes tour, with a network of large pipes and filters and a walkway around the compound, reveals a nylon “jump guard” at the top of the tank, added a decade ago after Methuselah jumped out. , spending up to an hour on it. the ground before it was discovered. (The escape occurred in the aquarium’s temporary home at 875 Howard Street.)

Methuselah is also unique for several high-maintenance quirks that have caused alarm – and comedy – at the aquarium.

“Sometimes she starts to float with her tail in the air,” says Jan. “And then we’ll get a bunch of calls. “What’s wrong with the fish?” What’s wrong with fish! “… To the public, it looks like she’s in distress.

The wand-shaped fish seemed to move up further when housed with the Aquarium’s two other lungfish named “Small” and “Medium,” so she was moved to her own shallow aquarium.

(Cal Academy doesn’t know for sure Methuselah’s gender – confirmation would involve a risky blood test – but Jan strongly suspects that the fish is female.)

Senior biologist Allan Jan holds a snack for Methuselah, the Australian lungfish, in his enclosure at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  Australian lungfish are

Senior biologist Allan Jan holds a snack for Methuselah, the Australian lungfish, in his enclosure at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Australian lungfish are “living fossils” that can breathe on land and in water.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Jan says he’s working on “enrichments,” which include training and tactile interactions, where he touches the fish to comfort them and make them more acclimated to the inevitable weigh-ins and medical procedures. When asked what types of touch Methuselah enjoys, he replied “literally rubs his stomach”.

The bond between the fish and the caretaker was strong before the pandemic, but after living without visitors for more than a year, the relationship has faltered.

“When we were closed for COVID all the animals relaxed and relaxed with no noise or people hitting the glass,” Jan said. “And then when we reopened it was kind of a shock. For Methuselah, his training dates back to the first day.

But the connection is growing again. On a recent visit to the edge of the aquarium, Jan gestures with a tap on the water, then offers Methuselah some smelt, first checking to see if the fish are going in his “don’t mind me” zone. Which would end the interaction.

California Academy of Sciences senior biologist Allan Jan checks out Methuselah the Australian lungfish in his enclosure at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.  Methusaleh is 90 years old and enjoys fresh figs and abdominal rubs.

California Academy of Sciences senior biologist Allan Jan checks out Methuselah the Australian lungfish in his enclosure at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco. Methusaleh is 90 years old and enjoys fresh figs and abdominal rubs.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

After a 30 second pause that seems a little passive-aggressive (“I always let her come to me”), the fish swims a slow turn and then takes the food from its hand. But she bristles when Jan tries to rub his chin. A year ago, Jan said, he could place both hands under her stomach and inspect her limbs without protesting.

Jan says he tells new volunteers and biologists, “Just treat them like underwater puppies. They are super, super soft. And they are very deliberate in their movement. And very predictable, that’s what I love about a fish.

Jan worries about the possible death of Methuselah. It refers to Pierre, the Steinhart Aquarium penguin who gained international fame by wearing a wetsuit to compensate for feather loss and lived to be 33 years old before he died in 2016.

“I would hate to be the one to lose her under my watch,” Jan said. “But you can’t predict it. You are simply giving them the best environment for them to thrive.

Peter Hartlaub is the cultural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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