Clumps of squid beaks sticking out of clay in Italy's Umbrian badlands may be the first fossilized ambergris, or whale poo, ever found.
Ambergris is a fatty, waxy-looking substance. Scientists believe sperm whales - the largest toothed predator on Earth - secrete ambergris inside their digestive tracts to protect themselves from sharp objects, like giant squid beaks and fish bones and teeth. And contrary to urban legend, ambergris is actually whale poo, not vomit. Sought after by perfume makers, aged ambergris is like umami for the nose, adding musky depth to scents.
Even though scientists have discovered fossilized feces, called coprolites, from dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, mammoths and sharks, no one has reported finding ancient ambergris.
"These structures, derived from the original fossil ambergris masses, represent the first recovery on a global scale, since nothing like has been described before in the scientific literature," lead study author Angela Baldanza, a sedimentary geologist at the University of Perugia in Italy, said in an email interview.