Ambergris (marine mammals)



Ambergris is a substance that forms only in the intestines of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). The word comes from the Old French ambre gris or “gray amber,” as opposed to ambre jaune, “yellow amber,” which refers to the true, resinous amber. Most ambergris is found in the large intestine, but smaller pieces have been found in the small intestine, and it may be that it initially forms in the small intestine and subsequently passes into the large intestine. Probably most lumps of ambergris are eventually voided during defecation, unless they grow too large to pass through the amis. Ambergris occurs in only 1 to 5% of whales of both sexes and all ages, but the circumstances that induce its production remain unknown.

Ambergris forms as concretions that usually weigh 0.1 to 10.0 kg, but rarely much bigger pieces have been recovered; the largest on record, weighing 420 kg., was removed from a 14.9-m bull sperm whale killed in the Southern Ocean on December 21, 1953 (Clarke, 1954). Such huge masses greatly distend the whale’s large intestine. Most pieces of ambergris are in the form of an irregular roundish lump, somewhat resembling a potato. Their specific gravity is 0.73 to 0.95. In consistency tliey are solid and friable, similar to nearly dry clay. Internally tliev usually show no laminations, but when broken apart tliev tend to fracture along concentric cleavage surfaces. In color they are pale yellowish to light gray on the inside, whereas the outer surface is dark brown with a varnished appearance. The cliitinons beaks of cephalopods are almost inv ariably found imbedded in the lumps. Fresh ambergris has the highly distinctive pungent odor of sperm whale feces, but aged pieces have an almost pleasant must)’ or even miiskv smell.

Chemically, ambergris is a nonvolatile solid consisting mainly of a mixture of waxy, unsaturated, high molecular weight alcohols. The principal component is an ester of ambrein (C23H39OH), which gives it its peculiar properties and odor (Gilinore. 1951). One analysis gave the following chemical composition: ambrein, 25-45%; epicoprosterol, 30-40%; co-prosterol, 1-5%; coprostanone, 3-4%; cholesterol, 0.1%; pris-tane, 2-4%; ketone, 3-4%; free acids, 5-8%; and residues insoluble in ether, 10-16% (Berzin, 1971; this analysis was mistranslated in the 1972 English edition of Berzin ).

Contrary to the prevalent notion, ambergris is hardly ever found 011 beaches; most is recovered directly Irom whale carcasses. Through the years many people hav e brought me malodorous globs that the}’ picked up 011 the seashore in hopes that it was ambergris; none of it ever was. II a suspected specimen of ambergris fits the physical description, the simplest way to confirm its identity is to heat a wire or needle 111 a flame and thrust it into the sample to a depth of about a centimeter; if the substance is really ambergris it will instantly melt into an opaque fluid the color of dark chocolate. When the needle is withdrawn, the ambergris will leave a tack)’ residue 011 it.

Ambergris was known throughout the Moslem world as earl)’ as the 9tli century. There it was highly valued as an incense, an aphrodisiac, a laxative, a spice, an ingredient in candles and cosmetics, and as a medication for treating a diversity of ailments. Its reputation soon spread around the globe. I11 those days, ambergris was picked up on beaches or found floating on the sea. and its origin remained a complete mystery, thus giving rise to many fanciful and hotly debated theories. I11 1574 the Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius was the first author to deduce from the inclusions of squid beaks in ambergris that it was the product of the digestive tract of whales. It was not until after the commencement of the American sperm whale fishery in 1712 that it became generally recognized that ambergris was produced solely by the sperm whale (Beale, 1839; Dannenfeldt, 1982). I11 the ensuing years, ambergris was prized mainly as a fixative for fragrances in perfumes. In the 20th century, synthetic chemicals replaced it so it 110 longer has much value.

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