Live Long and Prosper: Nature Life Spans

From minutes to centuries, the varied life spans of Earth’s plants and animals are inextricably entwined. Learn more about plant and animal life spans and how they're affected by each other.

| June/July 2008

  • Wolf Offspring
    For all animals, every new generation brings with it new possibilities.
    Photo by Tom Brakefield/Getty Images
  • Spotted Salamander Egg
    Each spring, spotted salamanders mate and the females lay eggs in vernal pools.
    Photo by Dwight Kuhn
  • Mid Life Spotted Salamander
    In the middle phase of life for the spotted salamander, the larvae live underwater and develop gills.
    Photo by Dwight Kuhn
  • Adult Salamander
    Six months after starting life as an egg, an adult spotted salamander moves onto land.
    Photo by Dwight Kuhn
  • Red Maple Seedling
    Under the right circumstances, a red maple will live for about 70 years.
    Photo by Dwight Kuhn
  • Adult red maple
    At about 35 years, this red maple is only middle-aged.
    Photo by Dwight Kuhn
  • American toad
    The American toad has an ideal life span of 10 years, but typically lives for only about one year.
    Photo by Maslowski Productions
  • Bison
    In the wild, bison live for about 15 to 20 years. Captive and exceptional bison in the wild may live for about 40 years.
    Photo by Janet Horton
  • Eastern Chipmunk
    The eastern chipmunk could live for three years or more, but typically only lasts for about one year.
    Photo by Richard Day/Daybreak Imagery
  • Red Fox Kit
    In the wild, the red fox averages about three years; its ideal potential is about 12 years.
    Photo by Richard Day/Daybreak Imagery
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird
    The ruby-throated hummingbird’s heart beats more than 1,200 times a minute when the bird is in flight; 250 times a minute when at rest.
    Photo by Richard Day/Daybreak Imagery

  • Wolf Offspring
  • Spotted Salamander Egg
  • Mid Life Spotted Salamander
  • Adult Salamander
  • Red Maple Seedling
  • Adult red maple
  • American toad
  • Bison
  • Eastern Chipmunk
  • Red Fox Kit
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Take a moment to stop and notice the life all around you: millions of species of plants and animals, all living, dieing, evolving all around us. Some animals come and go in the blink of an eye, others live longer than humans. All organisms go through three distinct phases of life, but why do different animals have different life spans? Why do some animals of a given species live for many years, while others live for only a few? The web of life is amazing, intricate and varying — and we’re all interconnected in big and small ways.

Funny, how some seemingly trivial images stick in your head for decades. You can’t explain them, but there they are, stubborn memories that have no more apparent significance than countless others that have long since slipped away.

Among my own peculiarly steadfast recollections is one late-summer day on my grandparents’ dairy farm in western New York. I remember my cousin Bonnie and me, both of us 9 or 10 then, sprawled side-by-side and belly-down in cool green grass beneath one of the three old maples lined up like leafy-headed, one-legged sentinels in front of the big white farmhouse. The object of our fascination was a restless dinner-plate-size cluster of ladybugs — hundreds of them — at the foot of the tree. Not a hair’s width separated one ladybug from the other; they moved like a single red-shelled, black-spotted organism with 3,000 legs. With hands held sideways, karate-chop style, to form walls, we could steer them, nudge them forward or back, right or left, like cowpokes coaxing a miniature herd across valleys and over hills (the tree’s aboveground roots).

And that’s the entire memory — just that image, nothing more; no sense of how long we amused ourselves with those beetles, no recollection of the day’s events before or after.



I’m tempted to describe it as a moment frozen in time, but I know better.

Once or twice a year, if I am lucky, I make the trip back to Genesee County, N.Y., to see my family. Invariably on those visits, I am drawn to the site of my grandparents’ farm. I walk the familiar fields and woods, home at last. And always, at some point, I end up in the front yard beneath that maple where Bonnie and I and those beetles played. It must be a peculiar sight to passersby on the highway: a stranger sitting cross-legged among high weeds in an empty, overgrown field.






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