Someone I know found what he believes to be a big lump of ambergris floating in the sea off Cornwall.  Who should he contact to get it tested - is there a definitive test for ambergris?

Hmm, good question. I assume there are tests for the stuff but I wouldn't know how to do it and therefore who to ask. He should keep hold of it though, it's very, valuable.

I don’t think the UK has any dedicated ambergris on-line sites such as you can find in New Zealand but there are these people in France who say they will evaluate a picture and/or a small sample - see http://www.ambre-gris.com/index.html (I have no idea how reputable this is).

If your colleague goes to http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoolog … ergris.htm  there is some basic info about ambergris testing, e.g., "there are a couple of tests that you can perform at home to find out if you should even bring that waxy substance to an expert in the first place.

Needle test - heat a needle over a flame for 15 seconds, and then insert it about an eighth of an inch (.3 cm) into the substance. Does it melt around the needle into a pool of thick, black, bubbling liquid? When you touch that liquid, do you end up with a stringy, tar-like residue on your finger? When you reheat the needle, covered in the melted substance, does it let off a white smoke?

Methyl-alcohol test - does a sample of the substance dissolve in hot methyl alcohol and crystallize when the alcohol cools?

If the substance passes those tests, the next ones take place in a lab. Chemists will test for benzoic acid and cholesterol in the sample. If the amounts are indicative of ambergris, it will usually be tentatively confirmed as ambergris at this time, although perfume companies will typically order more chemical tests before purchasing the would-be whale vomit. Some experts, though, say that the only test that can absolutely identify ambergris is extensive experience with the look, feel and scent of it.”

As to a public lab that could might be able to do testing perhaps contact Defra at: http://vla.defra.gov.uk/ and ask if they could point your colleague in the right direction?

Last edited by Steve Lolait (12th Dec 2012 13:36:38)

Cool stuff Steve! Well found and thanks for making my answer look deeply mediocre in comparison. ;)

It is really interesting isn't it Dave! It looks like the perfume people can synthesize most of the ambergris odours, so the value comes a lot from the rarity of the 'object'. Are you aware of any other animals besides sperm whales that secrete anything 'valuable' from their digestive systems?

I can think of some valuable secretions and some odd species-specific chemicals etc., but specifically from digestive systems nothing springs to mind. If nothing else I'm surprised there are no other whales that do soemthing similar - obviously sperm whales have a different diet to other giant whales, but you would have thought some smaller toothed species might produce something simialr. Or maybe they do, but it's in such small amounts it rarely survives long enough in water to turn up.