The Chemical That Makes Whale Barf An Aphrodisiac

Illustration for article titled The Chemical That Makes Whale Barf An Aphrodisiac

Here's a gem of a study. Scientists decided to see if whale vomit, perhaps better known under its far more exotic and marketable name ambergris, lived up to its reputation as an aphrodisiac. They unleashed its main component on some rats, and made my day.


Ambergris is what's horked out of the bellies of sperm whales every day. Before whale slaughter fell out of fashion, it was regularly used as a fixative for perfumes. The molecules that give a perfume its scent are volatile and frequently break away from the liquid, which is why we smell them. Fixatives anchor these molecules in the liquid, slowing their escape and extending the life of the perfume. Ambergris was an excellent fixative, but it was also something more. When fresh it smelled like it had just come from the guts of a whale, but as it aged it took on a sweet, pungent smell. Its scent, both in perfumes and alone, won it a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Its main component, scientists found out, was ambrein — a scentless alcohol, which forms the basis for many different types of scents. Scientists rounded up a bunch of male rats and dosed them with ambrein, then they stood back to watch the fun.

Studies like this, though valid scientific research, are always good for a giggle, especially when the authors establish the boundaries of sexual activity with phrases like, "Male sexual activities were assessed by recording the erectile responses (penile erection) and homosexual mountings in the absence of female." It's good that they clarified that "erectile response" meant "penile erection," otherwise I'd be lost.

I wish that they'd taken the same pains when they announced that ambrein produced "a dose-dependent, vigorous and repetitive increase in intromissions." Intromission, it turns out, means "the action or process of inserting the penis into the vagina in sexual intercourse." Am I hopelessly naive for not knowing that? Ambrein also produced an increase of "anogenital investigatory behavior," which is just what one wants from an aphrodisiac. As for the un-dosed females, scientists took note of their "pendiculations (yawns/stretches)." Presumably, they weren't as into it as the males.

It seems that, in male rats at least, ambrein does act as an aphrodisiac. And by finding that out science brought a little more knowledge and fun to the world. Win-win!

[Via Effect of Ambrein, a Major Constituent of Ambergris, on Masculine Sexual Behavior in Rats]