Do you have an ear for an accent? Then the world of science needs you! Scientists who study whale sounds are asking the public for help in identifying whale dialects. They say that – by crowd-sourcing with the help of you all – they can make rapid progress in figuring out which groups of whales have different dialects. Together, you might even help scientists decipher what some whale sounds actually mean. Plus it looks like fun.
Called the Whale Song Project, the idea has been launched by Scientific American, and is part of the Zooniverse collection of citizen scientist projects. Other ongoing Zooniverse projects – undertaken by its 400,000 volunteers – include the classification of galaxies in Hubble images, and the search for an icy rendezvous target for the New Horizons spacecraft (now en route to Pluto), reconstruction of historical records of Earth’s weather, and finding planets around other stars.
In the Whale Song Project, the professional scientists are from the St. Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the U.S.
According to a story in Physorg.com this morning:
The whale sounds have been collected over many years by researchers affixing temporary microphones to orca or pilot whales (both members of the dolphin family) and through the use of microphones submerged beneath boats or buoys. The problem has been, as the data mounts, the material available starts to overwhelm. With thousands of sounds to analyze and just a few hundred scientists working to figure out if sounds between different pods for example vary slightly, or if different types of whales of the same species sing in entirely different languages, it becomes a nearly impossible task. Thus, enlisting citizen scientists to help seems only natural, as all it takes is a pair of ears and a willingness to listen.
Wait. You didn’t know whales had dialects? They do. We carried a story last May (2011) about sperm whales who – when diving together – make patterns of clicks for one another (“codas”) that mean different things to the whales. Caribbean and Pacific whales have been found to have different repertoires of codas, like a regional dialect. You can read or listen to more about sperm whale dialects at EarthSky’s site.
Interested in helping identify whale dialects? Go to Whale FM, and get started. You can listen to whale songs and match them to others – and/or create a free account on the site that will let you do things like follow whales under study as they move around in the ocean. Added benefit: listening to whale songs is said to be very calming. What are you waiting for?
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.