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    Australian Couple Find Floating Gold
    By Sarda Sahney | May 22nd 2007 04:14 PM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sarda

    Sarda Sahney is a Ph.D. student at the University of Bristol studying macroevolution, with focus on the evolution of vertebrate communities. View Sarda's Profile

    Continuing on the whale theme today, an Australian couple has had an extraordinary windfall: walking along a remote beach they found 32-pounds of sperm whale puke, for which the proper scientific word is ambergris and the technical details are that ambergris is a solid waxy substance originating in the intestine of the sperm whale (Physeter catodon).
     
    At first this may seem like a disgusting curiosity worth no more than a moment of notice for its scientific value, but in fact the monetary value of the discovery is estimated to be over $1 million USD!

    Ambergris, often referred to as ‘floating gold’ is prized by perfume makers and sold for up to $90 USD/gram (gold is worth about $25 USD/gram). But trading ambergris is controversial and technically illegal. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) forbids trade of certain animals’ products for commercial purposes. However, it has difficulty committing to a ban on waste products by animals.

    Ambergris is formed when gastrointestinal materials harden around indigestible squid beaks that a sperm whale swallowed. When the mass gets large, the whale coughs it up (not unlike cats’ hairballs:)

    It is not clear what will happen to the find. Though it is illegal to trade, precedent has thus far allowed its exchange.

    Comments

    Kimberly Crandell
    Wow... a million dollar furball! I can't say that I'd recognize the value of such a thing if I found it on my beach. However, I may start tracking sperm whales that look as if they're feeling a little queasy...

    Hank
    Let's hope they held onto it, or it got tied up in bureaucracy before they could sell it - since gold doubled in price for no reason that makes any sense since then, perhaps that whale puke is $180 a gram by now.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Wow, I'll have to start looking out for this ambergris on my daily beach walks with the dogs. I wonder where the remote Australian beach was that the Australian couple made this find? We often see whales breaching in the ocean here at Byron Bay but they're mainly humpbacks not sperm whales. If some ambergris washed up here, it would probably be black bagged within the hour and thrown into the council rubbish bin by some conscientious dog walker who probably would have thought that it belonged to a Great Dane with an irresponsible owner.
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    rholley
    龍涎香【lóngxiánxiāng】 ambergris.

    This is from my Chinese dictionary: The literal meaning is “dragon spit fragrance”.

    Wikipedia is quite informative about ambergris, and also ambrein, the chief component of its fragrance.


    It is a triterpene alcohol, which is quite standard for a natural product, but with such a complicated molecule I do wonder what sort of biochemical pathways are involved in its synthesis.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England