The jojoba plant is a desert-growing shrub. The sperm whale is an ocean-living mammal. On first glance, it would not seem that they would have much in common. But they do—and that commonality may be the reasons sperm whales didn’t go extinct.

For over a hundred years, much of the world ran on sperm whale oil. It was available in great quantities, it was a wonderful fuel, and it was a great industrial lubricant. The only problem with it was, in order to get it, people had to go out onto the ocean and stab a huge, majestic, and increasingly endangered animal to death. It was sad, but where else would anyone get oil of the same chemical composition?

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The answer to that came when researchers noticed that a little plant in the desert straddling the border between the United States and Mexico had seeds that secreted a very particular kind of oil. Unlike the secretions of other plants, jojoba oil contains no glycerol. Glycerol is the viscous, hydrophilic substance that is the basis for most plant lipids. Instead of glycerol, jojoba has fatty alcohols. These alcohols are present in a lot of marine animals, because they aid buoyancy. Plants generally don’t need to be buoyant, and desert plants definitely don’t need to be buoyant. Still, tests showed that lubricants made from jojoba oil worked the same, or better, than those made with whale oil.

It wasn’t just the science that made the world turn to jojoba. Jojoba oil comes from jojoba seeds, which are difficult to harvest and are not produced in great quantity. It’s possible that, without legislative mandates, people would have only gotten around to developing jojoba as a resource after sperm whales went extinct. The Endangered Species Act made the idea of investing in jojoba plants that produce large numbers of seeds a better idea than illegally hunting whales. Now several countries are going special high-yield varieties of jojoba.

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Jojoba has a reputation for being new age and hippie-ish. In terms of marketing, it is. Chemically, though, it’s very retro. Dab a little on the next time you read Moby Dick, and think about how the chemicals between your fingers sent people out on the ocean to murder sea creatures for profit and revenge.

Image: Gabriel Barathieu, Jojoba Image: Leslie Seaton.