50 years ago, scientists thought a desert shrub might help save endangered whales

Excerpt from the March 25, 1972 issue of Science News

a photo of a jojoba shrub branch of with green acorn shaped seeds hanging off of it

The unique chemistry of sperm whale oil is almost unmatched — except for in the seeds of a desert shrub called jojoba (shown).

Ken Bosma/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Shrub may save the sperm whaleScience News, March 25, 1972

Cover of the March 25, 1972 issue of Science News

The sperm whale is an endangered species. A major reason is that the whale oil is heat-resistant and chemically and physically stable. This makes it useful for lubricating delicate machinery. The only substitute is expensive carnauba wax from the leaves of palm trees that grow only in Brazil … [but] wax from the seeds of the jojoba, an evergreen desert shrub, is nearly as good.


After sperm whale oil was banned in the early 1970s, the United States sought to replenish its reserves with eco-friendly oil from jojoba seeds (SN: 5/17/75, p. 335). Jojoba oil’s chemical structure is nearly identical to that of sperm whale oil, and the shrub is native to some North American desert ecosystems, making the plant an appealing replacement. Today, jojoba shrubs are cultivated around the world on almost every continent. Jojoba oil is used in hundreds of products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, adhesives and lubricants. Meanwhile, sperm whale populations have started to recover under international anti-whaling agreements (SN: 2/27/21, p. 4).

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.