Animals have been an integral part of human development. We’ve always used them for food, but they have contributed in almost countless other ways to the evolution of our culture and society. Not just companions, but for travel, for agriculture, for medicine, for protection and for war. We ask a lot of the animal kingdom. And in the present, we ask a lot for the animal kingdom. You may be able to get a ham sandwich for a few bucks, but there are plenty of other animal-derived substances out there which will break the bank and then some.
10. Scorpion Venom
Arguably the most valuable animal-derived substance ever, a gallon of venom from a deathstalker scorpion will set you back about $39 million. This is maybe a little misleading, of course, as not all liquids are created equal. You can head to the ocean and get a gallon of seawater for nothing. A gallon of milk will cost a few dollars and could have come from a dairy farm not too far from where you live, the result of just a few cows. You need 2.64 million scorpions to get a gallon of venom. Or just one you milk 2.64 million times. That’d take a little over 7,000 years if you did it once a day.
A scorpion produces about 2 milligrams of venom. They need to be milked by hand, one at a time, though some researchers have developed machines that can now speed up the process.
So why would anyone spend so much time and money at the risk of death to milk the venom? Because of the potential uses in medical science. Components in the venom show promise in helping to fight various forms of cancer, bone disease, and malaria. It’s being studied as a pain reliever and as an antibacterial agent. There are dozens of different applications being studied and the future benefits could be incredible.
9. Horseshoe Crab Blood
Horseshoe crabs are curious little evolutionary throwbacks that haven’t changed how they look in just about forever. They look like living fossils and are pretty much harmless in the world.But they are also remarkably valuable. Horseshoe crab blood is used to make something called limulus amebocyte lysate. Thanks to how the blue blood of the crabs clots, this substance, abbreviated LAL, is incredibly helpful in the manufacturing of vaccines and other medications. LAL is able to detect certain bacteria in a vaccine. So drop a little into a sample and it forms a gelatinous barrier around a dangerous bacterium like e.coli.
The use of LAL in vaccine manufacturing became a huge benefit. Before the substance was discovered, scientists tested vaccines by injecting rabbits and waiting to see if they contracted the illness caused by certain vaccines. It was much slower and obviously deadly for rabbits. LAL is safer and faster. But it does have its own cost. Horseshoe crabs are not known to want to give up their blood on a volunteer basis.
Blood harvesting kills a lot of crabs. But since it costs up to $60,000 per gallon, there’s certainly financial motivation to keep harvesting. Plus, it can save lives and protect rabbits which, if we’re being honest, more people care about than prehistoric crabs.
Ambergris is one of those strange products that doesn’t have much of a place in the modern world but still shows up now and then in the news and pop culture. There’s even an episode of Bob’s Burgers about it.
Back in the day, ambergris was an ingredient in perfumes. It’s created in the stomachs of sperm whales and it does not come into the world through the front door. Whales excrete it into the water, possibly as a means of helping them pass sharp objects that’s inadvertently eaten. It’s soft and greasy, so you can imagine how that works.
While it used to be harvested from whales that were hunted and killed, these days it’s found naturally when the odd piece rolls up on shore and someone finds it. A single kilogram can be worth around $130,000 US.
When it first appears, the ambergris has an extremely unpleasant smell. It smells like what it literally is – feces. Over time, this mellows out and becomes a sweet scent. Then it can be combined with other ingredients to make perfume and even medicine and drinks. And, yes, people used to eat it.
7. Almas Caviar
Most people know that caviar is expensive. It’s one of those foods you’ll always see on a list of the priciest foods in the world. It’s synonymous with wealth and refinement and really it’s just fish eggs. But just as you can buy a box of wine for $10 on the corner or spend thousands on a rare vintage, so too will caviar through you for a monetary loop.
The priciest caviar on earth is Almas caviar. It comes from a remarkably rare and endangered sturgeon found in the Caspian sea. These albino beluga sturgeons are found near Iran and the eggs are only harvested from fish that are already over 100 years old. Apparently, the age makes the caviar smoother and tastier. A kilogram will cost around $25,000.
Getting bit by a snake can be a potentially fatal problem. Up to 138,000 people die from snake bites per year and another 400,000 suffer serious injuries. This is why anti-venom is so important. But it’s not cheap by any means.
There’s no universal antivenom out there. Each anti-venom has to match the snake that bit the victim, and that’s part of the reason prices can get up to $3,200 per vial. And one vial will probably not be enough, either. Nine-year-old Oakley Yoder got bit by a snake in Illinois and the hospital administered four vials of anti-venom for the bite on her toe. The hospital bill for that alone was $67,957.
You can buy things like brown snake venom online right now for just under $4,000 per gram. Cantil pit viper venom is the bargain basement price of $200 per gram.
5. Seagull Poop
Ask most people what their least favorite part of the beach is and they’re likely to point the finger at seagulls. Despite being very helpful and vital parts of the ecosystem, seagulls are also known for being remarkably bold and greedy. If you have food on a beach, they’re coming for it. They’ll also be very noisy and messy about it.
The mess is where the value of seagulls comes in. Seagull guano is nutrient rich and incredibly useful as natural fertilizer. Guano harvesters in Peru in Chile made $12.2 million off of seagull poop back in 2018. That involved 27,000 tons of the stuff, so it’s not exactly diamonds from the heavens, but considering what it is and the fact it just plops down wherever, it’s still a decent price,
More impressive is that researchers have given a dollar value in general to seagull excrement. Aside from use as a fertilizer, it’s a part of the ecosystem and has value to nature, including fish. All totalled, there’s about a billion dollars in value per year coming out the back of seagulls.
Most of us know by now that poaching is a big problem for many animals indigenous to Africa and Asia. Few animals are more in the public conscience when it comes to this than elephants. They have become spokesanimals for the fight against poaching as they’ve been hunted for their ivory for centuries now. And while there is much more awareness these days, the poaching still continues. And when you find out the price poachers get, you can imagine why.
Most of the ivory currently in circulation is not ancient ivory that people are reselling. It’s coming from fresh kills because a pound of ivory can sell for $1500. At an average size around 175 lb per tusk, that’s going to be worth $262,500 to a poacher. Then double it for both tusks and you’ve got over half a million dollars for one elephant. That’s going to motivate a lot of people to keep killing.
3. Cone Snail Venom
Most people will go their whole lives without ever seeing a cone snail. And it’s just as well because these aquatic assassins are extremely toxic. Living in coral and totally blind, a cone snail smells its prey in the water. What happens next is very sci-fi and deadly efficient. The snail extended a long, fleshy proboscis which houses a venom-tipped harpoon, which is basically a small, sharp tooth. The tooth harpoon pierces their prey and injects it with the extremely deadly toxin. It then pulls the paralyzed fish into its mouth and digests the whole thing, excreting any bones along with the used up harpoon afterward.
The toxin it uses is incredibly efficient. Some of the smaller snails are not a real risk to humans, but larger ones can be deadly. They sometimes call them cigarette snails because it’s said that if they sting you, you’ll have time for a smoke before you die. That’s not necessarily true, but the snails have claimed a number of victims in the past.
Despite the lethality, the venom is also very valuable due to the countless compounds that are found in it. Medical science has been studying this venom for quite a while toward the goal of one day using it to make painkillers and other medications. Painkillers 1000 times stronger than morphine have already been derived from it.
The cost of the venom is astronomical. Venom from a geography snail is worth about 800 million euros per kilogram, or around $924 million US. The price is in part because of the size, these snails are pretty small so harvesting 1 kg requires thousands of snails. They’re also deadly enough to kill a human, so the job is risky.
Pearls are one of the strangest items most people take for granted. They’re lumped in with jewelry which, by and large, is made of metal and stone. Diamonds, rubies, gold and silver all form in the earth. Pearls, of course, form in oysters.
Oysters, and several other kinds of mollusks, produce pearls in the fleshy part inside the shell. They secrete calcium carbonate, allowing it to build up in layers and produce a pearl which is typically an iridescent white color. Perfect pearls have to be round, but a mollusk can shoot them out in all kinds of shapes. The round ones are the ones worth the most money, though.
Pearls can be harvested from saltwater or freshwater. They’re wild or cultivated, though wild ones are often worth more. Dark Tahitian pearls can be worth as much as $25,000. But South Seas pearls can get up to $100,000. Liz Taylor once had a pearl necklace featuring a pearl known as La Pelegrina. After her death, it sold for $11.8 million.
In general, pearls are worth somewhere between $300 and $1500. Not bad for something that was created by a mollusk to protect its insides from some kind of pollutant.
Ask most people what they know about musk, and you’ll start a conversation about Tesla. But musk, the animal-derived substance, has a long and pricey history. It’s an essential component of perfumes and colognes. It was traditionally secreted by animals like musk deer. The use of real musk from animals has mostly ended in the world. Synthetic musk can be produced and is considered much more ethical and cost effective.
Musk deer produce musk in a gland to attract females. The active ingredient is called muscone and, undiluted, it’s actually pretty offensive. There’s ammonia mixed in with it so the full strength of pure musk can be overpowering. However, once diluted and mixed with other compounds, it produces a distinct odor many people find pleasant.
Real musk is still used in traditional Chinese medicine and some other similar applications. A kilogram of musk can sell for around $45,000 US. A single gland only produces around 28 grams, so several deer have to die to make this happen. That’s why most musk has been replaced with the synthetic kind, but the industry hasn’t been stamped out completely.