Identification FAQs

The South Australian Museum is a vast repository of scientific knowledge and we receive many questions from the public about a range of topics. We have provided information on this page that will help you find many of the answers to your questions.

Can I bring something into the Museum to be identified?

We are a place that supports you to make discoveries about our world. We encourage you to be as active as possible in finding the answers to your questions, but due to the safety of our staff and the protection of the Museum's collections, we are unable to accept any specimens or objects for identification without prior arrangement.

See below for more information about how we are supporting identifications, and how you can find answers to your identification questions.


Contacting the Museum

If you have an identification question which is not answered on this page, you can contact us.

Please note that we are unable to answer every email individually, but your question will help us to keep this page updated with information that the public may want to know. It will also inform the topics covered in social media posts and dedicated identification days.

You can find our social media pages here:

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Biological Questions

I have a biological specimen I would like to get identified, what do I do?

For the safety of our staff and the protection of the Museum’s collections, we will not accept any specimens for identification or donation.

We recommend you upload the photograph(s) of the specimen together with the location information to iNaturalist, which helps to identify the plants and animals around you, with help of over a million scientists and naturalists, including those working here at the South Australian Museum.

By recording and sharing your observations, you will create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature, and also get identifications of species you have found – it’s a win-win!

iNaturalist can be used for almost all biological species, including plants, insects, arachnids, birds, reptiles, mammals, fungi, molluscs, amphibians, and fish. To identify your specimen, you can either create an account and add your photos to the database or search existing photos to compare and make your own identification.

Watch the video tutorials below to learn more:

Where else can I go to get an insect identification?

The CSIRO also has some useful guides to support insect identification:

Can the Museum help with pest identification?

If you are a primary producer, business or industry group looking for insect or pest identification, please contact SARDI at the Department for Primary Industries and Regions: Insect identification service - PIRSA

If you are an individual, seek the services of a pest control company.

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Geological Questions

Can you help me identify a rock, mineral or fossil?

We run identification days each month where you can bring in rocks, minerals, and fossils for identification by Museum scientists. These are held from 3.30-4.30 pm on the first Wednesday of every month. Our geological specialist will be in the Discovery Centre to answer questions and support identifications.

For identification and valuation of gemstones, precious stones, or jewellery, please seek the services of a jeweller. We cannot value stones or jewellery.

I think I have a meteorite, can I get it identified?

Meteorites are rare objects, and in the last forty years the Museum has received just three confirmed meteorites. We receive many enquiries about suspected meteorites each year, so we are asking for your help to test your objects before we investigate further.

There are some simple tests you can do to see if your rock might be a meteorite:

  1. Visual inspection – does the specimen contain any holes, air bubbles or voids?  If the answer is yes, it is highly unlikely you have a meteorite.

  2. Density – is the object heavy or light? Meteorites are very heavy, even if they are small, so if the specimen is relatively light, a meteorite is again ruled out. 

  3. Magnetism – is the rock magnetic? If not, or weakly so, it is highly unlikely to be a meteorite. You can test this by seeing if a strong magnet is attracted to your object.

  4. Scratch test – if you scratch the object down the back/unglazed section of a standard tile, what colour is left behind?  If the scratch is silver, then it may be a meteorite.  If it scratches black, yellow or red/brown, it is unlikely.

To see how some of these tests can be conducted, and to find out more about meteorites, you can visit our YouTube channel and view the video Discover Rocks with Leanne.

By conducting these tests and generating the appropriate answers, you are helping to support the work of the South Australian Museum by only submitting rocks which have a strong likelihood of being a meteorite.  

My sample has passed the tests and I think it is a meteorite, can I bring it in to the Museum?

If your sample passes all the above tests, you can email us with high quality photos and as much information as possible about when and where the sample was found.

If our collection managers feel there is a good chance your rock is a meteorite, you will be contacted about next steps. The Museum recognises all new discoveries with the presentation of a personalised meteorite finder’s medallion.

Is it legal to sell meteorites? 

No. In South Australia it is not legal to sell meteorites. Due to legislation passed by the State Government in July 1980, all meteorites found in South Australia after that date are legally the property of the South Australian Museum and are to be cared for in our collection. This means that any sample we confirm to be a meteorite will need to be kept by the Museum.

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Ambergris Questions

What is ambergris?

Ambergris is a by-product of Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) digestion. Ambergris is a solid, waxy material occurring in lumps of various shapes and sizes.  Nodules have been recorded as small as 6 grams, up to the largest boulder weighing 455kg.  These waxy concretions often contain indigestible squid beaks and pens.

Depending on maturity, the ambergris can range from a pale grey, through ash to brown or black. The colour may be consistent throughout or variegated.  When fresh, ambergris has a strong faecal smell, as it ages, it takes on a sweet, musky, earthy odour.

Examples of ambergris can be seen in the following video: Collection Affection - David Stemmer - YouTube

How is ambergris formed?

Sperm whales eat large quantities of cephalopods such as squid and cuttlefish.  Typically, the indigestible elements of their prey, such as the beaks, and pens, are vomited out during the early stages of digestion.

The formation process of ambergris is not fully understood. However, evidence suggests that if these indigestible elements pass through the whale’s stomach, they may coalesce and be coated by intestinal excretions that presumably covers the sharp beaks to reduce irritation.  The mass may then be retained in the rectum.  Over time, additional faecal material may accumulate, increasing the size of the ambergris. Large pieces of ambergris have a structureless central core, surrounded outer concentric layers.

Sperm Whales pass liquid rather than solid faeces and these whales have difficulty passing solid objects.

Some scientists think the whale will pass the mass (if small), whereas others believe the obstruction is likely to be released following the animal’s death.

Fresh ambergris has a strong faecal smell. Through exposure to sea water, sun and air the ambergris oxidizes to become the waxy substance, so revered. Historically, more mature ambergris was most highly prized, being a white to pale grey colour outside, with often a beige/golden colour inside and emitting a sweet musky, earthy odour.

It is also understood that pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps) & dwarf sperm whales (Kogia sima), with a cephalopod-rich diet, may produce small amounts of ambergris.

Where is ambergris found?

The occurrence of ambergris is rare.  It may be found in the rectum of sperm whales, floating on the ocean(flotsam) or most commonly washed up on coastal beaches (Jetsam) virtually worldwide.

How common is ambergris?

Ambergris may be produced in both male and female whales.

With an estimated 850,000 Sperm Whales world-wide (Whitehead & Shin Scientific Reports 2022), ambergris sources are relatively limited.  With the cessation of commercial whaling, the population appears to be increasing, although good data are lacking.

Historically whaling records indicate ambergris is found in about 1-3% of sperm whales.

How can I test for ambergris?

There are a number of ways you can test if what you have is ambergris:

  1. Ambergris has a specific gravity lower than water, so it floats even on freshwater.  If you place your sample in water and it sinks to the bottom, it’s unlikely to be ambergris!

  2. It melts in hot water of above 65o Celsius – always handle hot water with care!

  3. The best test to confirm if a specimen is ambergris: Heat the end of a needle or paperclip until red hot, then push it in the sample.  If it is ambergris, the area immediately surrounding the needle will melt into a dark liquid which boils vigorously.  When the needle is withdrawn, it will pull find waxy strings from the sample.  It will also leave a tacky residue on the needle.  The area where the needle was inserted, will appear shiny dark brown to black.  After the initial ‘burnt rubber’ smell, the characteristic scent of ambergris, somewhat ‘sweet, musky’ odour, with a hint of ‘dung’ or Brazil nuts, will come from the still soft, warm substance. Please note that this test should only be conducted by adults under controlled conditions.  Children should not attempt this test.

Video demonstrations of these tests can be found online.

The above tests will exclude 95% of objects commonly mistaken for ambergris.

If what I have is not ambergris, what could it be?

  • Jetsam: Material or goods that have been washed ashore, examples include fats, plastics, resin, low quality amber, waxes, degraded oils of various sorts and driftwood.

  • Balloon sponges (usually Geodia sp.): Found in shallow water marine environments.  Following storms, these sponges may be dislodged and then washed ashore.  Strongly odorous as they rot.

  • Ascidians (sea squirts): found in shallow water marine environments. Following storms, solitary an/or colonial ascidians may be dislodged and then washed ashore.  Strongly odorous as they rot.

What are the Legal Protections for ambergris?

Ambergris is a whale product, and therefore the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) regulates its possession and movement.

This Act also regulates the export and import of all whale products including ambergris.  These provisions are inconsistent with the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  CITES considers ambergris to be a waste product of sperm whales and does not regulate its trade.  Ambergris is legal to trade in many countries around the world, including Europe and New Zealand.

Under the EPBC Act, non-live sperm whale specimens may only be moved internationally for scientific or educational purposes, or if the specimens pre-date inclusion in a CITES Appendix (1979).

Either way, specimens moved under the above circumstances must generally be accompanied by CITES documentation.

I think I have some ambergris, what should I do?

It is recommended you report any ambergris you find within South Australia to the South Australian Museum. You can contact us by email, attaching high quality photos and including as much information as you can about the sample including when and where it was found.

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