Calling All Whale Whisperers

If you’re looking for a way to contribute to science from the comfort of your own home, here’s one option. Marine biologists are calling upon citizen scientists to help them match whale calls on Whale.fm, a new web-site that posts sound clips of whale songs for people to categorize.

The Whale Song Project, backed by Scientific American and Zooniverse, employs public participation to assist researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The scientists are studying killer and pilot whale calls to try and understand how these creature communicate. Using under-water microphones and non-invasive recording devices that they attached to individual whales, they’ve compiled nearly 15,000 different recordings of whale songs.

Killer whales, image from Whale.fm

Pilot whales, image from Whale.fm

From these data, they hope to find out more about the call repertoire of these species. For instance, how  large are their call repertoires, and is repertoire size correlated with species intelligence? Can we distinguish different dialects between families of whales? How do their calls change as a result of man-made sounds, such as sonar transmissions? Do changes in call repertoire indicate changes in their behavior? These results can yield important insight into how we can mitigate the impacts of man-made sound caused by activities such as oil/ gas seismic surveys, military tactical sonars, and offshore construction.

One type of microphone array used to study whale calls, image from Whale.fm

This study is unique in its reliance on the masses. In order to analyze this enormous data set, the Whale Song Project is collaborating with any whale-enthusiast who can access the internet. When you go to the Whale.fm website, you are presented with samples of killer and pilot whale calls. The sound clip is displayed on a map to show where the call was recorded. These clips have been slowed down to make it easier for our human ears to analyze them. Your task is to match pairs of similar sounding calls. The scientists then amass all of the votes cast by visitors to the web-site, and create a map of calls that allows them to identify patterns and groupings.

I think this approach is an awesome way to engage the public. In addition to the fact that more manpower speeds up the data analysis process, mass participation can enhance the robustness of the project’s results. Everyday people are unlikely to have any pre-existing biases towards whale calls, which better equips them to make impartial calls.  Moreover, the process of matching whale calls is subjective on an individual level, but when it’s averaged over many people, you have more confidence in the classifications. Kudos to an innovative solution for saving the whales.

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