Most mammalian cells do not divide indefinitely, owing to a process termed replicative senescence. In human cells, replicative senescence is caused by telomere shortening, but murine cells senesce despite having long stable telomeres. Here, we show that the phenotypes of senescent human fibroblasts and mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) differ under standard culture conditions, which include 20% oxygen. MEFs did not senesce in physiological (3%) oxygen levels, but underwent a spontaneous event that allowed indefinite proliferation in 20% oxygen. The proliferation and cytogenetic profiles of DNA repair-deficient MEFs suggested that DNA damage limits MEF proliferation in 20% oxygen. Indeed, MEFs accumulated more DNA damage in 20% oxygen than 3% oxygen, and more damage than human fibroblasts in 20% oxygen. Our results identify oxygen sensitivity as a critical difference between mouse and human cells, explaining their proliferative differences in culture, and possibly their different rates of cancer and ageing.