Saturday, June 14, 2014

Animal Poop: More Fun, Tasty, and Aromatic Than You Thought!

If you're a fan of Bob's Burgers, you might remember the Season 4 episode entitled "Ambergris" (check out the full episode HERE), in which the Belcher children discover a strange, aromatic hunk of...something...on the beach.  This something turns out to be an interesting byproduct produced by the sperm whale: and even a small hunk of it can be worth thousands of dollars to the right buyer.  But what exactly is the stuff?

Much like the title of the episode, this hunk of surprisingly expensive junk is called "ambergris," and scientists believe its production is related to the sperm whale's diet.  Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) love to eat giant squid who, despite their relatively squishy nature, possess a very tough beak, a feature seen in other cephalopods such as octopi and nautilus.  In my opinion, the cephalopods can be some of the most fascinating animals ever.  Period.  We can delve deeper into why these creatures are so fascinating some other time, but for now, I leave you with this video of the ultimate in animal spy-gadgetry that would make even James Bond sea-sick with envy.  (To see the full Ted-Talk that this video clip is taken from, click HERE.)
Another thing that I think is really cool about animals such as the octopus and the squid is that they have an extraordinarily tough beak.  Partially composed of keratin (the same thing your fingernails, hair, porcupine quills, whale baleen plates, claws of reptiles and mammals, horns,* etc.), this beak very closely resembles beaks seen in some types of birds, and is often referred to as a "horny, parrot-like beak."**  To truly understand the close resemblance, check out the pictures below!

Now, if you've ever tried to digest a bit of antelope horn or Komodo dragon claw, you might have noticed that it doesn't go down very easy, and comes out the other end with even less easy involved.***  For whales, most of the squid is pretty easily digestible, as they don't have to worry about scales or claws, feathers or hair.  That is, other than that tough, keratinous beak.  So what does the sperm whale do with this sharp section of squid structure?  The answer to that is kind of cool, albeit still poorly understood.

Here's what scientists think happens.  In order to keep the squid beak from harming the sperm whale from the inside, the whale somehow surrounds the tough bits of indigestible material (including the squid beak), to keep any sharp edges from being exposed.  That part seems to be fairly widely agreed upon, although it seems that the exact methods are still not terribly well understood.  Sources differ on how the ambergris leaves the whale's body, however.  One Scientific American article states that the whale passes the ambergris with its feces because "it smells more like the back end than the front" when it is first cast out of the body.  However, other sources explain that whale feces are liquidy, and hard matter could be difficult for the whale to process.  Instead, these sources state that ambergris builds up in the whale over the course of its lifetime, and are released when the animal dies.

So why is ambergris so poorly understood?  Well, researching whales, and sperm whales in particular, can be extraordinarily difficult.  You need the proper equipment, you need the money, and you need to be able to find the whales.  Sperm whales can also be more tough to study than other whales because of their natural behavior.  They will dive thousands of feet deep in search of their prey, and spend most of their time beneath the ocean's surface.  When they do protrude above the surface, it can still be difficult to find them, as they often don't protrude very far, and their spout of water released upon surfacing is much smaller than in many other whales.

Because of these and other factors, sperm whales remain poorly understood.  Ambergris is only known to form in the sperm whale and the related pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps), both of which are very hard to study.  Furthermore, studies have found that ambergris is only found in 1-5% of these whales, making the substance even rarer still!****  Because it is so rare, no one has ever seen ambergris expelled from a sperm whale, and the association is only known because of dead sperm whale bodies with ambergris discovered inside.

In spite of this rarity, or perhaps because of it, ambergris is something of a hot commodity, and apparently has been for thousands of years.  The Scientific American article quoted above cites the use of ambergris in many different ancient cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, Middle Easterners, and the Chinese.  It seems to have been regarded as a "cure-all" in some cultures, including Britain during the Middle Ages.  More recently, it was commonly used in perfumes, to fix odors and make the smells hang around for a longer period of time.  Although synthesized replacements have taken the place of ambergris in many scenarios, there apparently still is quite a market for the stuff, and even a relatively small hunk of it can fetch a price of several thousand dollars from the right buyer!

As an interesting side-note, fossilized ambergris has been discovered in 1.75 million years old Pleistocene deposits in Italy.  Some of these fossils, which apparently number more than 25, are even about two feet high and four feet wide!  The abstract of the article (link HERE) describe these fossils as "the only known example of Pleistocene sperm whale coprolites," indicating that the authors of the article consider ambergris to be a poopy product of the sperm whale.  Within the fossilized ambergris, parts of squid beak and "altered organic matter" have been found.

So yes, ladies, long story short, it is possible (although unlikely) that you have sprayed yourself with squid beak byproduct that was somehow expelled from a sperm whale at some point in your life.  If you feel slightly foolish, just remember: you can be sure that you never drank any coffee that was created from the partially digested excretions that came from the hindquarters of the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), or freshened up with the assistance of the male musk of the the aptly named musk deer (Moschus moschiferus), a scent which the females of the species find most alluring.

Oh wait, you might have done both of those.  Coffee made from animal poop....I have no doubt that Gene Belcher would love to have a cup.  Just remember on your next date, it's not coffee breath or a lack of perfume you have to worry about: its civet-butt breath and a lack of musk deer scent and whale byproduct.  You just better hope that there aren't any female musk deer around....

*Note that antlers are different from horns, and are not made out of keratin.  For a more in-depth discussion regarding the differences between antlers and horns, click HERE and HERE.
**Not that kind of horny.
***Based on speculation on the part of the author, and NOT personal experience.  Please do not try this at home without the supervision of a parent or guardian who has been trained in such matters.
****This statistic comes from the following source:  It doesn't actually say how this statistic was determined, but I assume from analysis of whale carcasses.  I don't think many people have tried to look at the digestive systems of whales that are still alive.
*****Yes that kind of horny.

Works Cited:
Ambergris. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 9, 2014, from

Baldanza, A., Bizzarri, R., Famiani, F., Monaco, P., Pellegrino, R., & Sassi, P. Enigmatic, Biogenically Induced Structures in Pleistocene Marine Deposits: A First Record of Fossil Ambergris. Geology. Retrieved June 9, 2014, from

Bird, J. (2007, June 7). SPERM WHALES: The Deep Divers of the Ocean. . Retrieved June 9, 2014, from

Clarke, M. R. The Identification of Cephalopod "Beaks" and the Relationship Between Beak Size and Total Body Weight. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), 8, 419-480.

Clarkson, E. N. (1980). Invertebrate Paleontology and Evolution. London: British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data. (Original work published 1979)

Graber, C. (2007, April 26). Strange but True: Whale Waste Is Extremely Valuable. Scientific American.

Kopi Luwak is the world's rarest gourmet coffee beverage.. (n.d.). Kopi Luwak is the world's rarest gourmet coffee beverage.. Retrieved June 10, 2014, from

Nyambayar, B., Mix, H. & Tsytsulina, K. 2008. Moschus moschiferus. In: IUCN 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. <>. Downloaded on 10 June 2014.

Pygmy Sperm Whale. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 9, 2014, from

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