Ancient whale poo, known as ambergris, has long been prized by perfumiers – but it also contains precious information about ancient oceans that could help save today’s whales
15 December 2021
THEY say, where there’s muck, there’s brass. Anyone who has stumbled upon ambergris will confirm this. The weathered whale excrement is extremely rare, but it can be found on beaches in many parts of the world. It is unprepossessing: dusty grey or brown with the faintest whiff of earth and sea, mixed with something unfathomably animal. Yet this stuff is so prized by perfume-makers that a lump the size of a human head could fetch you £50,000 or more.
Traditionally used to boost the staying power of scents, these days a synthetic alternative means that ambergris is found only in some luxury fragrances. But now scientists have discovered that it harbours another treasure. Adrift in the oceans for decades, even centuries, before washing ashore, each lump is a message in a bottle from a long-departed whale. It holds clues about the lives of these animals before whalers came to plunder them. “There’s really quite exciting potential to look at the impact of whaling on whale health and diversity,” says Ruairidh Macleod at the University of Cambridge.
Ambergris also contains historical information about the oceans, especially the marine species foraged by the whales that produce it. It could even give insights into how these animals might respond to the challenges they face as a result of climate change.
Ambergris usually makes landfall after a long voyage, originating as black, waxy lumps in a sperm whale’s colon. Nobody knows exactly why it forms. It may encase the sharp beaks of the squid that the whales prey on to stop them damaging the gut, or it may simply be …