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You're probably aware of lots of the things we take from animals, but for centuries, humans have been sneaking animal secretions into a bunch of things you probably didn't know about, like your Easter candy, your Mom's perfume, and even that cigarette you probably shouldn't be smoking. We also continue to enjoy delicacies that are only made possible because they come out of some animals' mouths, glands, and butts...
So, how many secretions have you slathered on or ingested lately? First you'll have to find out what they are and how they get into your body, which is what Hank will be telling you about in this episode of SciShow. Hooray!

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You know, animals... They give us lots of things. Or rather, we take lots of things from animals: food, clothing, free labor, and sometimes, companionship. Everyone knows about down pillows, leather shoes, guano fertilizer, honeycombs, and cheeseburgers. You probably also know about the devastation caused by the black market trade of animal parts and extracts used in so-called 'traditional medicine', like rhino horn powder, bear bile, and tiger bones; all of which, I'm here to tell you, is total bunk.

But, for centuries, humans have been sneaking animal secretions into lots of things you probably don't know about, like your Easter candy and your mom's perfume, and even that cigarette you probably shouldn't be smoking. And we also continue to enjoy delicacies that are only made possible because they come out of some animals' mouths, glands, and, yes, butts. So, how many secretions have you slathered on or ingested lately? I guess, first, you're gonna have to find out what they are, and how they get into your body.

[Intro plays]
(1:05)

Let's begin with one of the most widely used but little-known secretions you've probably interacted with: castoreum. Castoreum, not to be confused with castor oil, which is made from castor beans, is a yellowish secretion produced in the castor sacs of adult beavers. These sacs are located near the animal's genitals, and the rodents mix their secretions with urine to mark their territories. This stuff smells strong and musky, so [it's] no surprise that, long ago, some productive perfumer started using it in manly fragrances for a "hint of leather" In fact, those sweet, smoky stylings were so appealing to the human nose, some genius thought, "Hey, let's put it in cigarettes!" And castoreum became one of the 600 federally-approved cigarette additives. Uuugh! If you want another reason to avoid smoking, just look at that terrifying list. 




But that's not even half of it! Ever looked at the ingredient list on a carton of ice cream or a bag of candy corn and wondered what exactly all those dubious "natural flavorings" are? The Food and Drug Administration lists castoreum as "GRAS", or a "Generally recognized as safe" food additive, although it's clearly not safe for those poor beavers.

But beavers aren't the only musk machines out there! Civets are viverrids, omnivorous mammals with long bodies, short legs, and long tails that look like a cross between a weasel and a cat. And there are over fifty different species that range from Africa to Southeast Asia. Humans have long courted civets for their sweet-smelling musk, traditionally used as scent and fixative in perfumes. The oil is produced in the animal's perineal glands, which are, yes, near its genitals, and the humans harvest the valuable musk either by removing the glands from a dead civet, or, in modern times, scraping the glands out with a special tool. This task is as difficult as it sounds, and can be very painful to the animal if done incorrectly. Because of this, many fragrance houses are moving away from civet oil in favor of synthetic alternatives, although it is still used today by some.

But, humans use civets for an even more bizarre purpose: poop coffee. Yes, friends, that... is a thing. Kopi luwak is an Indonesian coffee made from coffee beans that, to put it politely, have been pre-processed by Asian palm civets. The animals eat the raw beans, partially digest them, and then defecate. Folks collect and clean the leftovers, apparently resulting in a smooth, caramel-y finish. Must really be something, because a pound of this stuff costs nearly $250 dollars, making it the world's most expensive coffee. [whispers] (And it's poop!) Incidentally, critics say it tastes like burnt, stale Folgers. In addition to the whole emperor-has-no-clothes element here, the production process can be inhumane. While civets in the wild voluntarily eat berries, leaving their excrement behind, this poop coffee craze has resulted in some operations keeping civets in small cages, under great stress. So, if you've a hundred bucks burning a hole in your pocket and you like the sound of a cup of Kopi luwak, please look for an ethically-sourced company to waste your money on.

Speaking of food I don't wanna eat, we gotta talk about bird's nest soup. You'd think that this popular delicacy is made from any old bird's nest, like grab a robin's nest, toss it in a pot with some celery and onions, and boom, you've got a soup. But, what sounds less appetizing than eating a bunch of poopy, feathered sticks? How about a bowl of bird's spit? Several species of Asian swiftlets weave their nests entirely out of hardened strands of their own gummy saliva. Males build these nests on cave walls, whereupon industrious humans come calling. Once collected and cleaned, these nests are sold to restaurants, where they're placed in hot water until they take on a gelatinous consistency. Connoisseurs are known to pay over fifty bucks for a bowl of this hot, viscous bird slobber. Conservationists worry that the value of these nests puts the species at great risk, especially when impatient harvesters snag nests that aren't yet empty, sometimes tossing aside the bird eggs or even the baby birds. 

And if you really want to talk about rare and valuable, in his classic novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote about our next example, saying, "Fine ladies and gentleman should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale." He was talking about ambergris, an ingredient found in traditional incenses, perfumes, and food flavorings. So what is it? Well, when a sperm whale has something sharp and irritating, like a squid beak, bouncing around in its digestive tract it'll cover it with a greasy, internal secretion to help expel the object. Long thought of as "whale vomit," researchers now believe the stuff comes out the other end. Then that nasty little packet bobs along in the ocean for months or years, hardening on its way to the shore, and solidifying an exceptionally unique scent. As you can imagine, ambergris is rare, and thus extremely valuable. In 2012 found a chunk on the beach, and at over 2.5kg, it's estimated to be worth over $63,000. Whale poop for the win!

So, who's willing to shell out that much for hardened, waxy, whale excrement? French perfumers, of course! Its fragrance can vary from generally animal-y to sweet to musky, but it turns out ambergris is also quite good at fixing a scent to human skin. Because sperm whales are a threatened species, ambergris is now illegal in the U.S. and Australia, but high-end French fragrance houses still use it. Though only the most expensive perfumes contain whale poop, so you won't find it in any French equivalent of Axe body spray.

Alright, so we've covered the musk, and the spit, and the poop. Let's look now at insect secretions. You probably know what shellac is; it's used to varnish, stain, and waterproof wood and other stuff. But did you know that it is secreted by the little, red lac bug? Found in Thailand, India, and Southeast Asia, lac bugs are members of the Coccidae family, also known as scale insects. When females insert the proboscises into a tree to suck its sap, they immediately begin extruding a sticky, amber-colored goo. The color of the goo depends on what kind of tree they're sucking on, so it comes in all kinds of earthy tones and shades. Because shell insects live in colonies and tend to stay on one tree their whole lives, a tree may be covered in shellac. Harvesters scrape it from the trunks, and clean, filter, and dry the resin into flakes which are dissolved in alcohol to make the shellac you find at the hardware store.

Creating a glossy sheen finish, shellac used to be a very popular wood varnish, but has now mostly been replaced by synthetic polyurethane. Historically, it was used for painting and finishing various wood and paper products, to coat sheets of braille, and, until vinyl was invented, gramophone records were made of pressed shellac. Today it is still used as varnish on fine string instruments, and, yes, you've definitely eaten shellac, too. It's still used sometimes as a glazing agent, coating certain hard candies like jellybeans, on medical pills, and, sometimes, as a preservative coating on citrus fruits.

On the cuter end of the animal spectrum, humans have been living with sheep for thousands of years. Behind dogs, they're the oldest domesticated animals. We use them for meat, milk, and wool, and for lanolin. Also called wool wax and wool grease, lanolin is a yellowish, waxy substance secreted through the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing mammals. It protected the animals skin from the elements by waterproofing its wool and as much as 25% of a sheep's wool weight could be from lanolin. When a sheep is shared, this greasy wax is separated from the wool with heat rollers and a centrifuge. The lanolin itself is an excellent moisturizer for human skin, and is used in all sorts of lip balms and lotions. It's also used in various industrial lubricants and leather conditioners.

So, clearly, animals ooze out all sorts of useful things, and over the millennia, we've managed to find ways to extract and exploit them. But there's also a growing field of research dedicated to creating synthetic alternatives to substances and structures found in nature: biomimicry. And here, researchers are studying another strange animal secretion that they hope will help build a better sunscreen: hippo sweat. Ever wonder why those bald, beefy hippos don't get totally roasted in the hot, African sun all day? They don't burn, because, it turns out, their sweat is an amazing natural sunscreen. Researchers found that the reddish-orange tinted, UV-absorbing, glandular glaze that they secret contains microscopic structures that scatter sunlight. In fact, hippo sweat may be more effective than any man-made sunscreen which reflects UVB rays but are less successful reflecting harmful UVA rays. It even has distinct antiseptic qualities; take that, Coppertone! And while no one is suggesting slathering on hippo sweat, researchers hope to replicate its effectiveness, without ... turning anyone orange. And, now you know; the next time you're making yourself smell good for a hot date, or enjoying a handful of jellybeans, or varnishing your violin, you'll probably have to thank one of our animal colleagues, who sweat, spit, or pooped its mightiest to make that possible.


 Closing Dialogue


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