When sperm whales digest their food, their intestines release a characteristically pungent substance called ambergris. Probably produced to help ease the passage of hard-to-digest-foods, ambergris is ejected through vomit or feces into the sea where it can be found riding the waves or lounging out on beaches around the world. When ambergris is “fresh,” it’s a black and waxy solid. But after being out in the ocean for a long time, it starts to resemble your everyday rock- a solid white, gray, or black, dull material.
Today, one pound of ambergris can go for $10,000 or more – its musky scent, which has the unique property of sticking to human skin, is used for high-end perfumes worldwide. In August of last year, a boy in the United Kingdom found a piece of ambergris weighing just more than one pound that was worth $63,000!
In central Italy, in clay deposits from an ancient ocean now known as the Tyrrhenian Sea, scientists have discovered Earth’s first perfume: the oldest deposit of ambergris ever.
Angela Baldanza from the University of Perugia, reporting in the journal Geology, uncovered some 25 peculiar-looking fossils when digging in the Allerona, in Italy’s western Umbria. Further analysis confirmed them as fossilized ambergris from 1.75 million years ago.
The fossils varied in size: between 12 to 24 inches long and 24 to 47 inches wide. Amino acids found fossilized in the remains are the same as those from squids – a common whale meal – and mammalian gastrointestinal tracts. The scientists compared the fossils to modern ambergris deposits, and found the shapes and surface patterns to be similar. They even found fossilized squid beaks – often found stuck in present-day ambergris, discharged by a sperm whale that couldn’t digest the hard part of its squid prey.
Ancient sperm whales left another piece of evidence for paleontologists to happen upon. In the Allerona digging site, large amounts of fossilized whale poop was also discovered, leading scientists to believe that perhaps a sperm whale die-out of unusually large scale occurred in the prehistoric Tyrrhenian Sea ecosystem.
Find the original study published in June of 2013 in the journal Geology.
The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.