WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- A team of scientists from Denmark and the U.K. has established evidence that ambergris originates from the digestive system of sperm whales.
- Although study findings were quite expected, this is the first time that a study has provided proof about the origins of ambergris, also known as ‘whale vomit’.
- Ambergris is a rock-like waxy substance of a dull grey or blackish color produced in the intestines of sperm whales that are usually found floating on the ocean or washed up on beaches.
Finally, scientists have gotten to the bottom of the mystery behind the strange lumps of waxy debris that is often found on the ocean’s coastlines around the world.
Initially, these blocks of flotsam were believed to be ambergris—a highly sought perfume ingredient that is naturally produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. However, no evidence had been officially established due in part to chemical differences between jetsam ambergris from beaches and ambergris taken from sperm whales.
To establish the origins of ambergris, popularly known as ‘whale vomit’, a team of researchers headed by Ruairidh Macleod from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and University of Cambridge, U.K., extracted DNA from flotsam ambergris that washed up on the beaches of New Zealand and Sri Lanka and compared to samples taken from a beached sperm whale in the Netherlands.
Study analysis that appeared in the journal Biology Letters confirms that ambergris fragments do come from sperm whales. Although this was expected, the study is the first to provide direct proof as well as insight into whale biology.
“These results demonstrate significant implications for elucidating the origins of jetsam ambergris as a prized natural product, and also for the understanding of sperm whale metabolism and diet,” wrote the study authors.
Even more remarkable is the fact that the team managed to extract “high quality” DNA from ambergris fragments that could have been floating at sea for many years and exposed to deteriorating effects of saltwater and sun.
The latest results can also provide a new source of genetic data for further studies investigating the dynamics of past sperm whale populations based on their lifespan.
“What’s exciting for me is the potential that this study shows to finding out more about the genetic and ecological history of the whales — obviously, they underwent a major population bottleneck during whaling, and it would be very interesting to find out how this affected them using DNA from those periods preserved in the ambergris,” explained Macleod to Newsweek.
He also added that being able to recover bacterial DNA from the ambergris can also contribute to solving the age-old mystery of how and why ambergris is produced.