What are whales talking about? Help find out

For decades, scientists have been listening to whales and dolphins, trying to understand what they’re saying. Now, the public — people like you and I — are being invited to work with them in a unique new research project called Whale FM. Over 16,000 recorded vocalizations by Killer whales and Pilot whales await analysis. Volunteers are needed to listen to whale call audio segments, to identify similar-sounding calls from different individuals. This work will help scientists characterize different types of calls, taking us a few steps closer to understanding whale conversations.

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Whale FM is the latest citizen science project at Zooniverse, created in collaboration with Scientific American, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Pilot whale. Image credit: Barney Moss via Wkimedia Commons

In a press release announcing the Whale FM project, its principal scientist, Peter Tyack of the University of St. Andrews, said,

Only a few researchers have categorized whale calls. By asking hundreds of people to make similar judgments, we will learn how reliable the categories are, and they get the fun of hearing these amazing sounds.

Past research in categorizing calls have revealed that Killer whales have a diverse repertoire that’s used for communication, navigation, and feeding. Scientists were surprised to find that different Killer whale pods have their own “dialects.” Much less is known about Pilot whales; the researchers who created Whale FM hope to harness the collective efforts of citizen scientists to better understand what Pilot whales are saying to each other.

D-Tag on a Pilot whale. Image credit: Whale FM

Many of the whale call recordings were obtained using ”D-Tags,” temporary tags that are suction-cupped to the base of a whale’s dorsal fin. Each tag is equipped with a hydrophone (underwater microphone) that records vocalizations of its host whale and other nearby whales, as well as motion sensors that record underwater activities such as dive depths. Whales are not harmed by these non-invasive tags that are designed to detach after about 30 minutes.

A hydrophone array deployed at sea. Image Credit: Whale FM.

Scientists also use hydrophone arrays, that’s several hydrophones strung together, to eavesdrop on whales. The arrays, deployed from ships or connected to buoys, pick up all sounds in the ocean. Specialized software processes these sounds to isolate whale calls, even determining the direction of the calls. In some instances, information about the location of a calling whale and it movements can be extracted from the hydrophone array data.

For volunteers, the hub of this project is the Whale FM website. There, they’re presented with a recorded call and a map showing the whale’s location at the time of the recording. Volunteers are asked to listen to other recordings, displayed below the main whale call audio clip, to determine if any of them sound similar to the main call. Similar-sounding calls are flagged by the volunteer and stored for further analysis by scientists. (If you decide to give it a try, I highly recommend reviewing their tutorial to familiarize yourself with the nuances of whale calls.)

Whales and dolphins have a diverse repertoire of calls for communicating with others of their kind. But what are they saying? With the help of volunteers combing through the voluminous data of Killer whale and Pilot whale vocalizations, call patterns will begin to emerge, allowing scientists to determine the extent of the “vocabulary” for each species, including population-related dialects.

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February 8, 2012

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Shireen Gonzaga

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