Top 10 Shortest Living Organisms

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Depending on where you live, and a host of other factors, chances are you can expect a life span of around seventy years, give or take a decade or two.

Of course, that’s pretty respectable, if not ideal, and most of us bid our final farewells with a few things still on our to do list, and quite a few more that we’ve done, either intentionally or not.

The saying “life’s too short” sums it up nicely. In fact, whether we lived a hundred years, or even two hundred, life would still be too short to learn everything, achieve everything and do everything we’d like to do. Humans aspire to learn, to experience and to know, and it’s because of this that we’re usually so selective of how we spend our time – anything not worth the time and effort usually makes a swift exit from out to do list, to be replaced with something that better serves our purpose in life.

It’s this quest for knowledge that helped us get to the top of the food chain, and stay there. Sure, there are Galapagos tortoises that live to 177, but I’ve never seen them do a quadratic equation, or learn to drive. So there you have it. Humans spend the relatively short term they’re given on earth gaining and applying knowledge, aspiring to new heights and building complex social networks.

There are some animals though, that don’t have that luxury. Whose life spans are so curtailed by nature that they hardly have a chance to do anything? One common thread that runs through the issue of life expectancy is that the smaller an animal is, the shorter it’s life it likely to be, interestingly enough, which is why all the animals you’ll find on this list are a lot smaller than humans!

Here are the ten shortest lived animals, and the life spans they expect.

10. The Rabbit


  • Life Expectancy: 5 years

Beloved pets of children the world over, the domestic rabbit does not, unfortunately, enjoy a long life. In fact, with the longest living tipping the scales at around five years, their lives are quite short indeed.

Rabbits have compensated for this short lifespan, like their other short lived compatriots, by becoming prolific breeders. The saying “breeding like rabbits” is certainly true, and in some parts of the world, like Australia, where they were introduced artificially, and have no natural predators, they have become a plague, breeding unchecked. Of course, Australians tried to counteract this, and other plagues, by introducing other predatory animals, like the cat, which only resulted in the uncontrolled breeding of the cat, and a resulting plague of cats.

But the common domestic rabbit or bunny is certainly a favorite of children, in real life and in stories, with classics such as Beatrix Potter’s tales immortalizing the rabbit, and movies and books like Watership down doing much to grow this cuddly creature’s reputation.

9. Hamsters and Guinea Pigs


  • Life Expectancy: 4 years

Those favorite elementery school pets, hamsters, and their larger cousins, guinea pigs, come in at a joint nineth place on the list, with life expectencies of between two and four years.

Hamsters, typically Syrian hamsters, the most common variety kept as pets, begin reproducing young, at around a month or two. From there, they can continue to breed, several times a year, bearing litters of multiple young.

These cute and cuddly little creatures are probably best known for their ability to store food in the pockets in their cheeks, and for their love of running on the hamster wheel. Anyone unlucky enough to have borne their ire will attest that their bite is another characteristic, being remarkably strong for such a small animal.

The guinea pig or Cavy looks a lot like an overgrown hamster, and although they aren’t a fan of the wheel, they do make a distinctive whistling sound when excited or alarmed.

8. The House Mouse


  • Life Expectancy: 1 – 3 years avg

Such a small creature, yet the bane of many a homeowner around the world. These little creatures have prompted humans to have cats as pets, and sparked invention by the creators of the mousetrap. They’re notoriously difficult to find and remove once they’ve entrenched themselves in a home, and are prolific breeders.

Tiny as they are, they strike fear into the hearts of many, and can jump, climb, run, and even swim, remarkably well given their size. Interestingly enough, house mice do not see in color, although their hearing far outstrips humans, being able to hear even ultrasound waves!

Adult females can breed every fifteen to twenty one days, come into estrus as soon as they are exposed to male urine, and can bear 5 to 10 young per litter, which may explain their phenomenal success as a species!

In spite of this, they are a favorite snack to many predators in the wild, and exterminated by humans as vermin, meaning their life cycle is in the region of one to three years.

7. Mosquito Fish


  • Life Expectancy: 2 years

This little fish, also known as Gambusia, hail from the Gulf of Mexico, where they live out their short lives, of around two years.

What really makes them interesting is that even though they are so short lived, they manage to break many conventions during that time. For one thing, they are very hardy for their size. They can survive in very saline waters, where other fish would not, and for short periods of time, in water that is up to forty two degrees Celsius.

The female mosquito fish, unlike most mammalian females, is larger than the male, reaching a maximum length of around seven centimeters to the male’s four. They also, like guppies, and a few other fish species, bear live young. This results in a higher life expectancy for those young, meaning they are quite prolific.

Given that they also breed three or four times in a season, bearing young numbering between 50 and 100 each time, this is one little fish that seems determined to endure.

6. Brine Shrimp, Opossums and Chameleons


  • Life Expectancy: ~1 years

An odd combination to be sure, but they share one common trait – each has a lifespan of only a year.

The first, the brine shrimp, is a type of crustacean, found only in salt water lakes. These poor little relatives of the crab and lobster have only one year on earth. They are, like many of their short lived compatriots, prolific procreators, but of course, when you’re tiny, tasty, and short lived, that’s essential to the survival of your species!

Usually, the shortest life spans are the preserve of insects and simpler animals, however, researchers have also found a species of chameleon, those color changing reptiles, known as Labord’s chameleon, in Madagascar, the large Indian Ocean island off the coast of Africa, that share a similar life cycle. These creatures hatch in November each year, just before the onset of the rainy season, mature rapidly and mate by January or February of the following year.

Before the next generation of chameleons emerges from their eggs to begin the annual cycle again, the entire adult population dies.

Last on the list, and rare at this extreme lower end of the life span scale, is a mammal – the North American opossum.

This little creature, native to American, is a small, around cat sized animal, with an almost white furred face, a rat like prehensile tail, which allows young opossums to hang upside down, and grey fur on its body. It’s an odd looking creature, with even stranger habits, and it’s one of the shortest lived mammals on the planet.

Another unique feature of this little critter is that, like humans, it has an opposable “thumb” on it’s hind feet, making it an excellent grasper. Of course, since it also has the lowest brain to body weight ratio of mammals, it’s unlikely to challenge the human position of dominance over other animals any time soon.

While it’s true that the maximum life span of this creature can run to four years, so many of them die in their first year of life that it’s fair to say that the average life expectancy is around a year.

5. Dragonfly


  • Life Expectancy: 4 Months

Like miniature helicopters, these often beautiful insects hover over ponds in summer, the sun glinting off their metallic carapaces as they live out their short lives, going about the business of eating and breeding.

And short those lives are. Although some species may remain in the pupal stage for up to five years, awaiting the perfect conditions to break free, and begin their lives, their actual time on earth, alive, and interacting with the world around them is limited to around four months.

So next time you see a hovering dragonfly, make a point of appreciating it’s beauty. It took a long time to hatch, and before the season turns, it will be gone.

4. Houseflies and Bees


  • Life Expectancy: 4 Weeks

Tied for fourth place, are two of the most common insects in the world. Both the ordinary housefly and the worker bee live around four or five weeks in total. These winged creatures live incredibly short, but immensely busy lives.

Consider that house fly eggs can turn into larvae, or maggots, within as little as twenty four hours, and that those larvae become flies in a few days more, then it’s on to take up the family business – eating and breeding.

And while the housefly’s sole purpose in life seems to be to irritate humans, while feeding and breeding, the poor worker bees, all female, spend their extra short life doing exactly what their name implies: working for the good of the hive.

If that wasn’t bad enough, if they do their hively duty, and deter attackers by stinging them, they cut their already short lifespan down, since they die when the stinger is ripped free. No wonder we have killer bees. They’re probably just mad at how unfair life is!

3. Drone Ants


  • Life Expectancy: 3 Weeks

Unlike their working female compatriots, the male ant or drone, lives a life of luxury, albeit it briefly.

From the moment they hatch, their sole purpose in life is to eat, and breed. Usually hatched around the same time as the breeding females, they take flight when the reproductive season begins, along with their male and female breeding counterparts, only to mate in flight.

While the female breeding ants then go on to seek out a suitable location to establish a colony, and do just that, the drone, life’s work completed, expires. From start to finish, the poor old drone ant has only a few weeks on earth.

It’s seems the trade off for the drone’s life of lazy luxury is to die young, although, during that time, they are spared the hardship of work. Somehow, that does not seem like a good deal to me.

2. Gastrotrichs


  • Life Expectancy: 3 Days

The gastrotrich is actually a type of animal: marine or fresh water micro organisms, with a maximum size of just three millimeters. There are many different types, but all live incredibly short lives.

Their lives are uneventful too, spent floating among the sediment in their watery home, occasionally attaching themselves to a surface for a while, before loosening themselves once more to drift on the currents, eating, and little else.

In spite of this laid back, relaxed attitude to existence, these little creatures typically have a lifespan of on average, only three days.

1. Mayflies


  • Life Expectancy: 1 – 24 Hours

Despite being prolific, with over two and a half thousand known species scattered across the globe, the Mayfly depends on quantity, rather than quality of life for their survival on earth.

These aquatic insects have the shortest lifespan known, with their life expectancy ranging from just a half an hour to one day, depending on their species. In fact, their sole purpose in life is to hatch, and reproduce.

Think about that the next time you lament the brevity of life! It could be far, far worse. In fact, if you were a Mayfly, you might not even have made it through this article before you shuffled off your mortal coil.