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Citizen Scientists Study Whale Songs: Years of Work Done in Months


Pilot Whale wearing sound-recording tag. Credit: Daniel Ottmann; photo was taken taken as part of research conducted under permit 14241 issued by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

In November 2011, Scientific American, Zooniverse and a team of research partners launched the Web site Whale.FM, a citizen-science project devoted to cataloging the calls made by Pilot whales and Killer whales (Orcas), both of which are actually dolphin species. Different whale families have their own dialects and closely related families share calls. Underwater microphones, called hydrophones, typically attached by suction cups to the whales, record the haunting and lovely sounds. Cataloging calls is a step in learning more about the communication of these magnificent marine mammals.

So far, more than 5,000 Whale.FM visitors (including yours truly) have matched a total of more than 100,000 calls. The task is simple and fun my daughters (ages 11 and 15) like to match calls with me. (The 11-year-old is pretty good at imitating the calls herself.) How it works: You listen to a call and see a spectrogram, a visualization of the sounds. Then you listen to several others that are displayed on the screen and see if you can select a match.

A question that has come up often about citizen-science projects is, How accurate are the data? Our friends at Zooniverse just did a spot check, using a subset of 300 of the calls. As Robert Simpson of Zooniverse put it in a note, We’ve compared their call categories to the (very!) preliminary results from Whale FM and it seems that the users are picking out good matches that tally with those of professionals. They located 28 subset-to-subset call pairings. A total of 25 of these were matched with calls from the same call category, as defined by professional scientists. Even more exciting, there were more than 350 pairings with calls outside of the 300-call subset which is an important reason to do Whale.FM.

Whale families share dialects. Credit: Leigh Hickmott, Open Ocean Consulting; photo was taken taken as part of research conducted under permit 14241 issued by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

One thing is also certain: Whale.FM already has produced the equivalent of years of cataloguing work by scientists in just a couple of months. Although there’s still more work to do, that s an achievement worth singing about. For more information about other projects in which you can help scientists conduct research, please check out Scientific American‘s Citizen Science page.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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