He was struck by its size, which indicated its age, he said. Generally, the larger the clam, the older it is. Most quahog clams found in U.S. waters are between 2.8 and 4.3 inches long, although they can grow larger.
“I’ve seen that species of clam, but never one that big or even close to that big,” said Parker, 23, explaining that the average quahog weighs about half a pound and that his discovery was 2.6 pounds and six inches long.
As trees do, clam shells form yearly growth rings. Parker counted the external rings with a fingernail and reached 214 — meaning the clam would have been born in 1809, just like Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president.
Parker decided to name his discovery “Abra-clam Lincoln.” People on social media loved it.
Although some quahogs live for hundreds of years, “the majority of them are deceased between 30 and 40 years,” Parker said, adding that spotting this particular species at Alligator Point, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, also was unusual.
He determined that Abra-clam was part of the mercenaria campechiensis species, also known as the southern quahog.
“Our area of Florida has the slowest growth rate of the whole gulf population, which is pretty cool,” Parker said, explaining that southern quahog clams are generally found between the Chesapeake Bay and the West Indies.
He considered eating the clam. It would make a great addition to the feast he was cooking that weekend, he thought, and the shells would be large enough to use as bowls.
“At the time, we were planning to make a chowder out of it, but we thought about the fact that it probably was special,” said Parker, who kept the shellfish in a bucket of water. “We decided not to eat it, and I brought it to work on Monday.”
His colleagues, he said, were delighted by his discovery.
“They were all just as excited as I was, because we’re all marine science nerds,” he said. “It was a pretty cool day.”
Jack Rudloe, who co-founded the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in 1963, was impressed.
“It’s relatively rare to find them,” he said.
Rudloe gave kudos to Parker for coming up with a catchy name for the clam, which Parker said definitely caused people to take note of a mollusk to which they otherwise wouldn’t give a second thought.
“It’s really shocking. I didn’t think it would be this popular,” said Parker, who spent several days doing research on the clam. “I never expected this to blow up as much as it did.”
“What’s really interesting about this species is that they are just extremely tough. They can survive a long time out of water,” he said. “They got their name ‘mercenaria’ because Native Americans would actually use them as currency.”
In his research, Parker also realized that he may have miscalculated Abra-clam’s age. Rather than counting the outside bands, he learned that he needed to count the inside bands to determine its true lifetime — which would require killing the animal. Further analysis led Parker to predict that the clam is between 107 and 214 years old, but one clam expert he later consulted suspected that Abra-clam Lincoln might be even younger.
“We may have been off in the beginning, but overall, there’s no real telling the exact age of that clam without killing it,” said Cypress Rudloe, the executive director of Gulf Specimen Marine Lab and Jack Rudloe’s son.
“At the end of the day,” Cypress Rudloe continued, “I’m incredibly proud of Blaine. Just to be able to get the attention to marine life on a national level like this is outright amazing.”
Regardless of how old the marine animal is, Parker decided its name should remain Abra-clam Lincoln, because it is what made the shellfish a celebrity of sorts.
“It is inspiring to see this many people interested in marine science in this capacity,” he said. “It feels good.”
Parker also decided that Abra-clam Lincoln should be set free. On Feb. 24, less than a week after he found the shellfish, he released it into the ocean.
“I determined that it was too special to let it die in captivity or be made into soup,” Parker said. “I felt a lot better turning it loose.”
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