Majikthise reports that an Australian couple has found a $295,000 lump of ambergris on a beach. Ambergris is cool stuff, so let me add to it’s splendor by bringing up two scientific views of it.

First, let’s hear from the chemists:

Since ancient times, ambergris has been one of the most highly valued perfumery materials. It is secreted in the stomach or intestinal tract of the sperm whale and released into the sea in the form of a grey to black stone-like mass. When exposed to sunlight, air and sea water, the material gradually fades to a light grey or creamy yellow colour and, at the same time, the main component, the odourless triterpene alcohol ambrein, is oxidatively degraded. Some of the products resulting from this chemical process are responsible for the organoleptic properties of ambergris.

We know the chemical structure of many of the active components of ambergris—it’s a beautifully complex collection of compounds.

Two ambergris odorants and their natural precursor, ambrein (1).
Examples of non-trans-decalin ambergris odorants.

And what about us biologists?

The effect of ambrein, a major constituent of ambergris, was studied on the sexual behavior of male rats. The rats were administered ambrein in doses of 100 and 300 mg/kg body weight. Male sexual activities were assessed by recording the erectile responses (penile erection) and homosexual mountings in the absence of female. The copulatory studies were carried out by caging males with receptive females brought into estrus with subcutaneous injections of estradiol benzoate and progesterone. The copulatory pattern of treated male rats (mountings, intromissions, ejaculations and refractory period), the pendiculations (yawns/stretches) and orientation activities towards females, the environment and themselves, were recorded. Ambrein produced recurrent episodes of penile erection, a dose-dependent, vigorous and repetitive increase in intromissions and an increased anogenital investigatory behavior, identifying the drug used in the present study as a sexual stimulant. It is conceivable from the present results that the ambrein-modified masculine sexual behavior in male rats supports the folk use of this drug as an aphrodisiac.

Mmm-mmmm. Good stuff, that ambergris.

Gorbachov M.Yu., Rossiter K.J. (1999) A New Electronic-Topological Investigation of the Relationship between Chemical Structure and Ambergris Odour. Chem. Senses 24:171-178.

Taha SA, Islam MW, Ageel AM (1995) Effect of ambrein, a major constituent of ambergris, on masculine sexual behavior in rats. Arch Int Pharmacodyn Ther 329(2):283-94.


  1. says

    That structure sure is suggestive, isn’t it? I wouldn’t go so far as suggesting it is direct activation of steroid receptors, but olfactory receptors for steroid-like compounds, maybe.

  2. SEF says

    They’ve shied away from investigating the “folk use” though. Is it deemed unnecessary because “all men are rats” anyway? ;-)

  3. says

    In a perfume museum (hey, it was a girl’s stag night) I had the opportunity to smell and hold a little lump of ambergris. It smells really nice (sweet), no wonder it is used in the perfume industry. Unlike musk, which stinks.

  4. craig says

    If I found a chunk of it washed up on the beach down here, the only legal thing I could do is report it to the gubmint. Not only couldn’t I sell it, I couldn’t even take it home and use it as a stinky paperweight, I’d be subject to prosecution under the endangered species act.
    I guess I understand, they don’t want to contribute to the demand for it, same as discouraging the ivory trade.
    But if I happened to find an antique ivory chess set at a flea market, I couldn’t be prosecuted for owning it.
    I have mixed feelings over this.

    I guess mostly I just want to be able to find cool things on the beach.

  5. says

    US University Bioethicists that we have written to, abhor the (illegal in the US) trading of ambergris, and no respectable perfumery company will now use animal products. It is true certain companies in one particular European country continue to flout world opinion, but the gloabl moratorium on whaling was in part drawn up because of ambergris hunting and its potential effect on sperm whales. Please remember that there is a moral aspect here which has been lost in press reportage. Tony Burfield, Cropwatch.

  6. Kristjan Wager says

    It is true certain companies in one particular European country continue to flout world opinion

    Now, this is a long-winded way of saying “Norway”, which together with Japan are the only ones that still hunts whales (except for the Faroe Islands, that hunts some whales for food).