The origin of ambergris

R. Clarke

Abstract


Early and modern theories of the origin of ambergris are described. Ambergris occurs in both male and female sperm whales, and also in the pygmy sperm whale. It occurs in about one in 100 sperm whales. The largest find weighed 455kg and sold for £23,000 in 1914. Ambergris occurs in the rectum of the whale but neither causes nor betrays disease. The rectum is not damaged by squid beaks. Indigestible material, that is, squid beaks and pens and the cuticles of parasitic nematode worms, are regularly vomited by sperm whales and the intestine and rectum can only deal with liquid faeces. When, as sometimes happens, some indigestible material leaks into the intestine and, by at least partly blocking the flow of the faeces, the tangled mass is pushed into the rectum where there is reason to believe that the water absorbing capacity of the rectum is increased (p. 33). In this way the faecal matter is precipitated on the indigestible material to form a smooth concretion and the faeces can pass again. Then more foecal material arrives and the process is repeated. In this way the flow of liquid faeces is maintained, although at the expense of accretionary growth in size of the coprolith which becomes ambergris. Response processes in the whale are constructional. The biochemical processes which transform the coprolith into ambergris are consequential upon its incubation over a long period in the peculiar environment of the rectum teeming with bacteria. Eventually the rectum stretches until it breaks, causing the whale's death and the ambergris is released into the sea.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5597/lajam00087

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