Using Crowdsourcing To Understand Whales
November 30, 2011

Using Crowdsourcing To Understand Whales

Whales have long been known to communicate through sound patterns, songs and calls. However there remains much mystery as to what these sounds mean and if whales have distinct dialects.

Marine researchers, in an attempt to learn what the communications might mean, must sift through fifteen-thousand hours of recordings to better understand the dialogue among these sea mammals and so have created 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).

To help trawl though these, citizen scientists are being asked to participate in studying whale communications and to pass along their observations, reports Larry Greenemeier for Scientific American.

Interested participants can visit and will be asked to study and compare sound wave patterns, or spectograms, of calls made by whales in different pods and families of pilot and killer whales around the world.

Every sound recording is geotagged to a specific location in the sea, allowing scientists to precisely place clusters of calls in the areas where specific families of whale are known to inhabit, Severin Carrell writes, for The Guardian UK.

Professor Ian Boyd, one of the project´s collaborators from the University of St. Andrews´ sea mammal research unit, explained that scientists had discovered that people were naturally better able than computers to identify similarities in complex spectograms.

“The first thing we want them to do is compare the images because what the human brain is very, very good at doing is comparing images, and is much better than a computer,” Boyd said. “For someone like me who´s tone deaf, who isn´t very good at telling sounds apart, we´re very, very good at making distinctions between small changes in shapes and objects.”

Scientists are hoping to answer a number of questions regarding whale communication, such as the size of the pilot whales´ call repertoire and if repertoire size corresponds to 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.

“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.

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.


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