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Scientific American Launches Project to Identify Whale Calls

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


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Scientists have long known that whales communicate through sound patterns often referred to as songs and calls, but there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding what these haunting sounds mean and whether different whales have distinct dialects. The sheer volume of underwater sounds that marine researchers must sift through to better understand the dialogue among these mammoth mammals only adds to the challenge.

Citizen scientists can now help study whale communications and pass along their observations through the Whale Song Project (aka Whale FM), a whale-song identification project that Scientific American launched Tuesday in partnership with the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).

Click here to participate in the Whale Song Project.

The Whale Song Project, available as part of the CSA’s suite of Zooniverse citizen-science projects, is designed specifically to assist in killer (Orca) and pilot whale research being conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research has likewise played a role in organizing the Whale Song Project, working with Woods Hole to coordinate data collection and preparing that data for use by citizen scientists.*

The data that a citizen scientist analyzes comes from “D-Tags,” affixed by Woods Hole and SMRU researchers to whales for recording their calls and other sounds that the sea mammals emit and detect. The tags also have motion-sensors that allow researchers to follow the movement of the animal underwater in great detail to depths of more than 1,000 meters. Other whale sounds are recorded using underwater microphones—called hydrophones—affixed to buoys or boats. There are more than 15,000 whale calls on the site with more to come.

Many of the sounds that citizen scientists will hear in this project have been recorded during behavioral response studies to try to understand how and why marine mammals respond to various sound stimuli. In these experiments, the effect of sonar sound on killer whales and pilot whales is studied. Killer whales and pilot whales respond to sonar sounds amongst others by changing the calls that they make.

The large number of recorded whale calls (along with other undersea noise that might be mistaken for calls) has made it difficult for these scientists to make sense of all the data collected. The human ear is well suited to perform sound analysis, but it would take a single person months to characterize all of the information collected, and the outcome would still depend on that person’s interpretation alone.

Through the Whale Song Project, citizen scientists are presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas. After listening to the whale call—represented on screen as a spectrogram showing how the pitch of the sound changes with time—citizen scientists are asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project’s database. If a match is found, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound’s spectrogram and the results are stored.

The dataset generated by this project should help scientists to answer a number of questions regarding whale communication. For example, researchers want to know the size of the pilot whales’ call repertoire and whether repertoire size is a sign of intelligence. In addition, researchers seek to understand whether the two different types of pilot whales—long fin and short fin—have different call repertoires, and, if so, whether this signifies a distinct dialect.

Since May, Scientific American has been promoting citizen science projects on its Web site that cover a wide variety topics and locations. No advanced degrees in physics or biology are needed, only a curiosity about the world around you and an interest in observing, measuring and reporting what you hear and see.

“Zooniverse and I discussed options, and we thought this project would be scientifically interesting and enjoyable for citizen scientists,” says Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief of Scientific American, which is sponsoring the project. DiChristina also serves as an adviser for the CSA, which will be producing about 10 new projects with the help of funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Citizen scientists can sign up to participate in the Whale Song Project using their existing Scientific American login and password, or they can create a new Scientific American account. The project is free and participants can decide how much time they devote to the project.

Pilot whale image courtesy of Barney Moss, via Wikimedia Commons

*The description of the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research’s role in the project was added 11/30/11

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

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





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