First-Ever Ambergris Fossils Found in Italy

Italian paleontologists have reported the discovery of enigmatic fossils in Pleistocene shallow-marine clay deposits in central Italy.

1.75-million-year-old ambergris fossil (Angela Baldanza et al).

1.75-million-year-old ambergris fossil (Angela Baldanza et al).

Dr Paola Sassi from the University of Perugia’s Department of Chemistry with colleagues found more than 25 large structures over an area of 1,200 square meters at the Allerona site in western Umbria.

The structures, measuring 30 to 60 cm high and 60 to 120 cm wide, are calcium carbonate-rich deposits of different types and shapes emerging as cones from the clayey sediment. Their color varies from yellowish to red or whitish to light gray.

The paleontologists identified these 1.75-million-year-old structures as fossilized ambergris.

Ambergris is a solid, waxy, gray or blackish flammable substance usually associated with sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and rarely with pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps). It can be found floating upon the sea, or lying on the coast.

Amergris, also known as the ‘floating gold,’ has been a popular perfume ingredient since ancient times. It possesses a complex scent, described as musky, sweet and earthy. Currently, highest-quality ambergris is sold for up to 20,000 USD per kg.

Modern ambergris, left, and ambergris fossil from Allerona, western Umbria, Italy (Angela Baldanza et al).

Modern ambergris, left, and ambergris fossil from Allerona, western Umbria, Italy (Angela Baldanza et al).

The structures “show several important similarities with contemporary ambergris masses: the overall forms and striation of the structures; the presence of fossil squid beaks; and the presence of organic molecules derived from mammalian gastric activity and from the alteration of squid beaks,” Dr Sassi and her co-authors wrote in a paper published in the journal Geology.

“The discovery of these masses of ambergris increases our knowledge of the distribution and activity of sperm whales in the ancient Tyrrhenian Sea 1.75 million years ago.”

“The Allerona site, exhibiting a very high concentration of sperm whale coprolites, is the first fossil documentation of sperm whale ambergris anywhere in the world,” the authors concluded.

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Bibliographic information: Angela Baldanza et al. Enigmatic, biogenically induced structures in Pleistocene marine deposits: A first record of fossil ambergris. Geology, first published online July 30, 2013; doi: 10.1130/G34731.1