Making Predictions

Pricey Poop


BEFORE YOU READ: Think about why a smelly substance made in a whale’s gut might be worth a lot of money.

How much would you pay for a stinky, waxy lump pooped out by a whale? The piece shown above sold at auction for more than $15,500! The greasy substance is known as ambergris. “It smelled terrible!” says auctioneer Chris Surfleet, seen holding the pricey specimen. “Imagine a bowl of rotten eggs mixed with overcooked cabbage and some sports socks that hadn’t been washed.”

Sperm whales produce ambergris in their guts to aid digestion. These whales prey on squid and cuttlefish, which have sharp beaks. Scientists believe a whale’s digestive system creates a waxy fluid to surround these hard bits to prevent them from injuring the whale’s stomach or intestines. Then the whale expels the mass of ambergris—likely with its feces, or poop. Scientists believe it could also be vomited out.


MASSIVE MAMMAL: Sperm whales can grow to nearly 80 feet long and weigh more than 120,000 pounds.

Because of its oily nature, ambergris floats on water and can eventually wash up on shore. A man found the chunk pictured while walking on a beach in Wales in the United Kingdom.

There’s a surprising reason this whale goo was so valuable: Ambergris is used in some perfumes to add earthy notes and make their scents last longer, says Joel Mainland, an odor scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania. Because ambergris is rare, many perfume companies use a synthetic, or artificial, version of the goop. “When you’re creating a scent, you often need to mix good smells with bad ones,” says Mainland. “Sometimes you need some fecal notes to really make the whole thing gel together.”