Human World

Will humpback whales train us to communicate with aliens?

Reprinted from a December 12, 2023, statement from the SETI Institute. Edits by EarthSky. Video by EarthSky.

SETI team ‘converses’ with a humpback whale

SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. On December 12, 2023, a team of scientists from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation, said they had a close encounter with a non-human (aquatic) intelligence. The Whale-SETI team has been studying humpback whale communication systems in an effort to develop what SETI researchers call “intelligence filters” in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In response to a recorded humpback ‘contact’ call played into the sea via an underwater speaker, a humpback whale named Twain approached and circled the team’s boat, while responding in a conversational style to the whale ‘greeting signal.’

As a matter of fact, during the 20-minute exchange, Twain responded to each playback call and matched the interval variations between each signal.

Humpback whales: Black v-shaped tail of a whale sticking out of the water in an ocean.
The tail of the humpback whale called Twain. In fact, humpback whales communicate with each other and SETI is studying them to learn how to communicate with non-human intelligence. Image via Jodi Frediani/ SETI. Used with permission.

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A description and analysis of the encounter appears in the November 29, 2023, issue of the journal Peer J, titled: “Interactive Bioacoustic Playback as a Tool for Detecting and Exploring Nonhuman Intelligence: Conversing with an Alaskan Humpback Whale.”

Woman and man on a boat shown at a table using laptops.
Brenda McCowan and Fred Sharpe at work onboard the Blue Pearl. Image via Jodi Frediani/ SETI. Used with permission.

According to the lead author Brenda McCowan of U.C. Davis:

We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback language.

Coauthor Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation said:

Humpback whales are extremely intelligent, have complex social systems, make tools – nets out of bubbles to catch fish – and communicate extensively with both songs and social calls.

Black and white photo of a man bundled up in winter gear on a boat.
Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation. Image via Jodi Frediani/ SETI. Used with permission.

Communicating with non-human intelligence

Similar to studying Antarctica as a proxy for Mars, the Whale-SETI team is studying intelligent, terrestrial, non-human communication systems to develop filters to apply to any extraterrestrial signals received. With this in mind, the mathematics of information theory to quantify communicative complexity – for example rule structure embedded in a received message – will be utilized.

According to Laurance Doyle, a coauthor on the paper, of the SETI Institute:

Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers. This important assumption is certainly supported by the behavior of humpback whales.

Bottom line: SETI researchers are studying how humpback whales communicate. This may eventually help us communicate with non-human intelligence of an alien civilization.

Source: Interactive Bioacoustic Playback as a Tool for Detecting and Exploring Nonhuman Intelligence: Conversing with an Alaskan Humpback Whale


Read more: SETI looks to Milky Way’s heart for alien signals

December 14, 2023
Human World

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