Nummulites are virtually extinct, giant marine protists that reached up to 160 mm diameter during the warmest climatic phase of the Cenozoic. Until now, their life span and paleoenvironmental tolerance have remained enigmatic. Pioneering the use of high-resolution drilling techniques in Nummulites, we show that both N. laevigatus and coeval bivalve Venericardia planicosta from the Lutetian of Hampshire, United Kingdom (ca. 50–42.5 Ma), underwent strong, annual alternations in carbon and oxygen isotopes, possibly reflecting tolerance of broad environmental variation. Our data demonstrate a life span of at least 5 yr for N. laevigatus, and we estimate that the largest species may have lived for more than 100 yr.