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Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? Mystery Object 3

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It’s time for another round of our Booth Museum Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? quiz. Can you guess what the mystery object is before we reveal the answer?

Mystery object of the day

Mystery object 3

Read the clues and scroll down for the answer.

Clue 1

This animal produces ‘floating gold’ which can sell for around £50,000 for a 1.5kg piece!


Clue 2

The animal in question was the subject of an infamous revenge quest of a captain in a famous novel…Thar she blows!


And the answer is…drum roll please…


The tooth of the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus!

Sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, Gabriel Barathieu CC BY-SA 2.0

Ain’t that the tooth?

Sperm_Whale_Skull, vagawi CC BY 2.0

Sperm_Whale_Skull, vagawi CC BY 2.0

The magnificent sperm whale is the largest toothed predator in the world. Males can reach up to 19 meters in length – around 5 times the length of an African elephant! Their 52 cone-shaped teeth sit in their slender lower jaw and weigh around a kilo each!

Under pressure

In order to hunt, sperm whales dive to depths of up to 1,000 metres where the pressure is 100 times greater than at the sea-level. They are the deepest diving marine mammal in the world and are able to hold their breath for around two hours.

This has made it extremely difficult for scientists to study their feeding behaviour. However, clues from studying their stomach contents (lovely job!) have given some insight into what these hunters eat. It turns out that sperm whales aren’t very picky eaters: their diet ranges from octopuses to fish and crustaceans, but at the top of the menu are giant and colossal squid. These creatures are not merely the stuff of legend and evidence for their existence lies in the video below…the Kraken awakes!

You’re Kraken me up

Giant and colossal squid live at depths so deep that light cannot penetrate the water and is pitch black. In order to detect their prey, sperm whales cannot use ordinary sight, instead they use a special way of seeing – echolocation. This means they see through sound.

The whales produce highly directional clicking sounds. These will bounce off any objects in their path (including an unsuspecting colossal squid) producing echos. These echoes help to build up a 3D picture of the surrounding environment so the whales can see their prey hiding in the darkness. Clicks made by the males can reach up to 230 dB – the loudest clicks produced by any animal. By comparison a jet engine produces 150Db!

It’s hard to stomach

Ambergris,_from the Skagway_Museum by Wmpearl / CC0

Squid beaks are incredibly hard to digest and this is where ambergris comes in. You might have heard of ambergris as ‘floating gold’; it can be found floating on the ocean waves or washed up on the shore. Ambergris is highly valuable and used in high-end perfumes to make the scent last longer.

But ambergris has quite a gross origin. The substance is actually a whale’s ‘intestinal slurry’ and is produced in the digestive system ofsSperm whales. Ambergris is thought to pass with the whale’s excrement and is used to aid the digestion of the indigestible squid beaks to reduce the risk of injuries and constipation.

Whale hello there…

Sperm whales aren’t just highly effective predators, they also lead socially complex lives. Each group of sperm whales has their own dialect, talking to one another using a series of clicks that have a unique accent. Their clicks act as encoded messages, or ‘codas’, that can only be understood by other whales in their social group, sort of like a secret code between friends. Scientists have also just recently discovered that they can identify specific groups just through listening for these ‘accents’.

Grace Brindle, Collections Assistant, Booth Museum of Natural History

Discover More

  • Want to find out more about cetaceans and marine life in Sussex by visiting our Ocean Blues website.
  • Inspired by whales? Why not have a go at drawing our dolphin themed objects in our Mid-week draw
  • Find out more about ambergris and what laws are in place to protect sperm whales here