Strange Blobs Washed Up on Beaches Confirmed As 'Whale Vomit,' Scientists Say

Researchers have shed new light on the origins of jetsam ambergris, a strange, waxy material with an almost rock-like appearance that is sometimes found washed up on beaches around the world.

It was previously assumed that these blocks of jetsam ambergris—which can be extremely valuable as a highly-prized perfume ingredient—were a natural product of sperm whales.

But no direct evidence for this has ever been found. Notably, there appears to be significant differences—in chemical composition, for example—between pieces of jetsam ambergris which have been found on beaches and ambergris samples which have been taken directly from sperm whales.

To investigate the origins of jetsam ambergris—sometimes referred to colloquially as "whale vomit"—a team of scientists led by Ruairidh Macleod from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and University of Cambridge, U.K., extracted and analyzed DNA from jetsam ambergris found on beaches in New Zealand and Sri Lanka and compared it with DNA isolated from an ambergris sample taken directly from a beached sperm whale in the Netherlands.

This analysis revealed that the jetsam ambergris samples very likely originated from sperm whales, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters. While this result is not in itself wholly surprising, the study provides the first direct proof of this process, as well as yielding insights into whale biology.

"These results demonstrate significant implications for elucidating the origins of jetsam ambergris as a prized natural product, and also for the understanding of sperm whale metabolism and diet," the authors wrote in the study.

The fact that the team were able to extract "high quality" DNA from the ambergris is particularly notable given that the samples could have been floating in the ocean for many years while being exposed to the degrading influences of saltwater and the sun.

Ambergris fragments. Ruairidh Macleod et al./Biology Letters

The latest results could have significant implications for the study of ambergris—which has been the subject of scientific discussion since at least the eighteenth century—as well as the animals that produce the strange substance.

For example, the results of the latest study could pave the way for ambergris to be used as a new source of genetic data to investigate the dynamics of past sperm whale populations, given its long lifespan.

"What's exciting for me is the potential that this study shows to investigate the ecological history of the whales — since [ambergris] preserves DNA so effectively — particularly if other sources of DNA within the whale's gut can be analyzed," Macleod told Newsweek.

"The biggest implication to my mind is the potential for finding out more about the genetic and ecological history of the whales — obviously, they underwent a major population bottleneck during whaling, and it would be very interesting to find out how this affected them using DNA from those periods preserved in ambergris." he said. "Also, if we can also recover bacterial DNA from the ambergris, this could help with the age-old mystery of how and why ambergris is actually even produced."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Ruairidh Macleod.