WAILING WHALES: Orca pods like this one, pictured off the coast of British Columbia, communicate underwater via pulsed and tonal sounds often referred to as "songs." (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Whale songs can be eerie and intriguing to hear, like undeciphered broadcasts from an alien civilization. They're clearly full of meaning, and maybe even emotion, but they make about as much sense to us as Lady Gaga does to belugas.
While astrobiologists keep hunting for alien intelligence, though, marine biologists are already hard at work trying to decode whales' aquatic operas. This is still no easy task, but it may become a little easier thanks to a new campaign seeking help from "citizen scientists" — i.e., anyone with free time, good ears and a Web connection.
The Whale Song Project, launched this week by Scientific American and Zooniverse, lets online volunteers participate in the oddly soothing task of analyzing and categorizing the songs of pilot whales and orcas. It's part of a recent trend toward crowd-sourced science, and takes advantage of humans' ability to recognize certain patterns even better than computers can.
There are about 15,000 different songs stored at Whale.fm, and each one is geotagged to a specific place in the ocean where it was recorded. Visitors are presented with one "main call" followed by 36 others, and are asked to pick out which of the follow-ups most closely match the original. You can listen to as few or as many songs as you like, and you can also look at spectrograms of each one for a visual comparison.
Scientists already know that that each family of orcas — aka killer whales — has its own dialect, and that closely related families tend to share songs. Orca families are tightly knit, centered around a matriarch whose offspring stay with her throughout her life. The average orca family has about five members, and closely related pods often swim together. When a family disperses to feed or mingle, its members belt out songs to relocate their relatives. And since each pod has its own songs, orcas can listen for their family even if unrelated whales are singing nearby.
Less is known about pilot whales, partly because fewer of them live near populated coastlines, according to the Whale Song Project's organizers. But they have many similarities to orcas: Both are actually dolphins, both tend to live with their mothers into adulthood, and both produce complex songs in which a high-frequency tone changes independently from the lower-frequency tone.
The pulsed and tonal elements of these songs are often repeated over and over, suggesting they aren't random or improvised. They may work like words or phrases, comprising a common language that evolves over time into localized dialects. Scientists record the songs using "D-Tags," a type of noninvasive sensor that's attached via suction cups and eventually falls off. These tags record the whales' sounds as well as location, helping scientists understand the context in which each song was sung. Some songs are used to find family members, for example, while others may be used in mating or hunting. Some are a complete mystery.
Anyone can go to Whale.fm and start matching songs free of obligation, although more dedicated volunteers can also create a free user account with more options, like tracking specific whales around the ocean. Either way, listening to whale songs doesn't just help scientists sift through a daunting amount of data; it offers a relaxing, almost meditative experience. And it makes sense that people enjoy whale music even though we don't quite get it — just look at how much belugas like mariachi.
To hear some examples of whale songs, check out this compilation of orca calls:
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