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Ambergris From Beaches Traced to Sperm Whales

Researchers have traced the origins of jetsam ambergris, fatty blobs that wash up occasionally on beaches, to sperm whales, the New York Times reports. Ambergris is used to make perfume, and where it can be legally collected, it is worth thousands of dollars, it adds.

The University of Plymouth's Steven Rowland and his colleagues note in their paper that ambergris had been suspected to come from sperm whales, as ambergris had been found within sperm whales' bodies. But, there was no direct evidence linking jetsam ambergris to sperm whales, especially as the jetsam version differed in its composition.

But as they report in Biology Letters this week, Rowland and his colleagues analyzed DNA they isolated from ambergris that washed up on the shores of New Zealand and Sri Lanka and compared it to ambergris isolated from a sperm whale that beached in the Netherlands. They found that the sequences they isolated from all three samples were similar to those from sperm whales.

The University of Otago's Alana Alexander tells the Times that as ambergris can be at sea for many, many years, it could be a source of genetic material from whales from before the whaling era and provide insight into whale populations from then. She notes, though, that the ambergris sample size in the study was small, but acknowledges at the Times that it is "certainly not within the average researcher's project budget to pay wholesale price for it!"