Scientists enlisting public's help in identifying whale dialects

November 30, 2011 by Bob Yirka report

( -- In recent years, crowd sourcing has been shown to be an effective means of categorizing large amounts of data by large groups of people, the project that uses captcha’s to help translate text on the Internet, for example, has been a great success. Now, scientists that study whale sounds are asking the public for help in matching whale sounds made by one whale to those made by others in other groups. They hope is that by gathering the ears of many listeners, progress can be made in figuring out if different groups of whales have different dialects, and maybe even in deciphering what some whale sounds actually mean.

Called the Whale Song Project, the idea has been launched by Scientific American, and is part of the Zooniverse project whereby citizen scientists, as the site describes them, help professional scientists by searching or sifting through data or pictures to find patterns that can help, for example, to find new galaxies. In this case, the professional scientists are from the St. Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit in Scotland and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the U.S.

The whale sounds have been collected over many years by researchers affixing temporary microphones to orca or pilot (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.

Those that are interested can go to the Whale FM site and start listening to whale songs and matching them to others without any further obligation, though those users that wish to can create a free account on the site that will allow them to do things like follow whales under study as they move around in the ocean. When listening and matching, citizen scientists are also shown on a map where the sounds were recorded, which may help in deciding whether another song is similar in some respects, or not. Some have suggested that in addition to helping scientists crack the mysteries of whale songs, citizen scientists also benefit from the calming effect that listening to them appears to elicit.

Explore further: Killer whale sounds fail to urge gray whale to sea

Related Stories

Research tracks whales by listening to sounds

January 2, 2006

Researchers have developed a new tool to help them study endangered whales – autonomous hydrophones that can be deployed in the ocean to record the unique clicks, pulses and calls of different whale species. Those efforts ...

Sperm whales return to Mediterranean

February 14, 2007

Marine biologists in Italy say the sperm whale, once thought to have been nearly wiped from the region by drift nets, has returned to the Mediterranean.

Last whale dies in mass Australian beaching

November 17, 2011

The last of a huge pod of sperm and minke whales washed onto a southern Australian beach and nearby sandbank has died despite an extensive operation to set it free, officials said.

Recommended for you

Tiny protein coiled coils that self-assemble into cages

October 17, 2017

(—A large team of researchers with members from Slovenia, the U.K, Serbia, France and Spain has developed a technique that causes proteins to self-assemble into geometric shapes on demand. In their paper published ...

The importance of asymmetry in bacteria

October 17, 2017

New research published in Nature Microbiology has highlighted a protein that functions as a membrane vacuum cleaner and which could be a potential new target for antibiotics.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 30, 2011
Early DNA studies of "right whales" might help, within pod, relations (Guelph U.) Or more, crossbow and string. ?txt so slow here defeats comm.
not rated yet Nov 30, 2011
This looks to be right up my alley :)

...deep thought though, do we know which end of the whale these noises are coming from ?
not rated yet Nov 30, 2011
That's a serious question, btw.

It would be both sad and funny were somebody to devote their time attempting to decipher whale flatus.

..jus' sayin'
not rated yet Dec 01, 2011
I suspect that animal Flatuance can be a form of communication. I base this on observasions i have made of my 12 year old Terrier. When he is arround me and i am not aware of this he lets me k ow he is around by emmiting a really strong ' bottom belch ', this leads me to conclude he is letting me know he is there.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.