Written by Katie Grady
Image credits can be found by clicking on the images.
Take a moment to think about the most valuable natural resources on plant earth. Think in terms of cash money, not in terms of what makes you happy or what I like to call ‘soul money’. What did you come up with…gold, diamonds, crude oil, or perhaps uranium? What about whale poop? Now let me explain this last one before you write me off as a crazy person.
About 50 billion kilograms of human feces is produced every year, just to give you a bearing on the mass of poop deposited on earth annually. Most animal feces are considered noxious and perhaps less than worthless to human industry, with a few exceptions like the occasional use for fuel, to feed a healthy compost pile or to use as gunpowder in the case of bird droppings.
What you may not know is there are a few extraordinary creatures on this planet producing very expensive, highly sought after dung every day. Let’s focus on one of the most elusive mammals on the planet, the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus.
Fancy sperm whale poop has a very special name – ambergris. This jewel of the ocean is the result of hardened feces called coprolith, or what I like to call petrified poop. The grey and amber marbled dung (pictured to the left) is popularly known as floating gold.
Ambergris has been used medicinally for headaches, colds and epilepsy for thousands of years in addition to being used as a condiment, as an aphrodisiac and in perfume (Clarke, 2006). There are even fables alluding to King Charles II of England often putting ambergris on his eggs!
Ambergris is still valuable today in perfumery where it is one of the best-known fixatives and has a very desirable odor described as sweet and earthy (Panten et al. 2014). Desirable odor and poop in the same sentence, there is definitely a glitch in the matrix. Some of these specialty perfumes are reported to run at $11,000 a bottle. So how in the world did someone decide whale poop would make great perfume?
The major constituent of ambergris is a chemical called ambrien, which has a tenaciously persistent odor preserving the scent of a perfume well after the perfume itself has departed. In addition, when ambrien degrades from sunlight and air it forms its own pleasantly odorous compound called ambrox (Shen et al., 2007). Like a fine wine, ambergris just needs some time to age, abandoning the fishy fecal odor to a more desirable one. This is why floating gold is a fitting name since ambergris currently runs about $26 per gram, and in more recent times was the same price as gold (Panten et al. 2014).
£23,000 (British Pound Sterling) in 1914 (Clarke, 2006). This is the equivalent of about $830,000 US dollars today. More recently in 2012, then 8-year-old Charlie Naysmith (pictured to the left) discovered 600 grams of ambergris, which was quoted at upwards of £40,000.
Was ambergris always this sought after? Ambergris was first mentioned in the ninth century when an Arab traveller recorded trade of ambergris among islands of the Indian Ocean. In the 17th century, people tossed around tons of ideas concerning the origins of ambergris, some of which included a mushroom growing at the bottom of the sea (what was that guy on?), dried foam of seals (whatever that means?), a perfumed fruit which fell into the sea, a waxy honeycomb melting from rocks and my personal favorite, fish sperm (Dudley, 1724; Clarke, 2006). I’m just wondering how these folks would respond now if you told them it actually came from whale poop…obviously a more logical explanation.
It was not until the 1720’s, when sperm whale fisheries were established that people discovered ambergris was produced by the sperm whale. Historically, ambergris has also been confused with spermaceti. For those of you who still chuckle at the name ‘sperm’ whale and think what crazy scientist came up with that name, here is fun educational side note – spermaceti is a waxy fluid contained the spermaceti organ found in the head of sperm whales. This fluid is used for echolocation and possibly buoyancy and this is what gave sperm whales their name. Currently, there is some heated controversy spanning the media and the scientific community as to where ambergris is formed and whether it is excreted as vomit or feces. The jury is still out as to which orifice this expensive nugget uses to breach into the world, but the current leading theory is that ambergris comes from the rectum (Clarke, 2006).
Modern scientists devoting their lives to researching ambergris generally accept the following model for ambergris formation and excretion. The production of ambergris begins with what a sperm whale eats. A sperm whale’s primary food source is larger species of squid, such as the illusive giant squid (Architeuthis). Even as molluscs (soft-bodied animals) a squid’s body does have some hard parts including a beak, which is often indigestible to sperm whales. Whales normally vomit the indigestible material, since the intestine and rectum can only tolerate liquid feces. Sometimes portions of indigestible material leak into the intestine and get pushed into the rectum creating a damn that blocks the flow of feces. This presumably causes the rectum to absorb more water creating a cement-like substance or what I shall refer to as ‘gooey feces’ which coats the periphery of the sharp beak (Clarke, 2006). The routine coating of gooey feces creates a concretion of layers.
Originally this coating allows more liquid fecal matter to pass, but not without a cost. This layering can go on for years in a healthy whale, but eventually, the rectum will become so distended it will literally explode and the whale will die. Looks like in some cases the giant squid gets its revenge after all.
Clarke, R. 2006. The origin of ambergris. Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals. 5(1):7-21.
Dudley, P. 1724. An essay upon the natural history of whales, with particular account of the ambergris found in the sperma ceti whale. In a letter to the publisher, from the honourable Paul Dudley, Esq; F.R.S. Philosophical Transactions. 33:256-269.
Nunes, F.M.N. and P.M. Imamura. 1996. A convenient preparation of ambergris odorants from copalic acid. Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society. 7:181-186.
Panten, J., H. Surburg and B. Holscher. 2014. Recent results in the search for new molecules with ambergris odor. Chemistry and Biodiversity. 11:1639-1650.
Shen, Y., S. Cheng, Y. Kuo, T. Hwang, M. Chiang, and A. Khalil. 2007. Chemical transformation and biological activities of ambrien, a major product of ambergris from Physeter macrocephalus (Sperm Whale). Journal of Natural Products. 70:147-153.