Scientists ask public to help decode whale song
Marine scientists have launched an appeal asking wildlife enthusiasts for help in decoding the secrets of whale song in a global “crowdsourcing” experiment.
Experts in the UK and north America are asking “citizen scientists” to study and sift through about 15,000 recordings of calls by pilot whales and killer whales around the planet, to see if new phrases, meanings and dialects can be uncovered.
The Whale Project, launched on Tuesday by Scientific American and the online citizen science organisation The Zooniverse, is similar to the first major attempt to use crowdsourcing by amateur astronomers to help discover new galaxies by studying images taken by the Hubble space telescope in July 2007.
Participants visiting whale.fm will be asked to study and then compare the sound wave patterns, or spectograms, of calls made by whales in different pods and families of whales around the world.
They will be asked to identify identical or very similar sound wave patterns, and will be able to play back each sound excerpt to help them match segments. Every sound recording is linked to a specific location in the sea, or geotagged, allowing scientists to precisely place clusters of calls in the areas where specific families of whale are known to inhabit.
Prof Ian Boyd, one of the project’s collaborators from the University of St Andrews’ sea mammal research unit, said scientists had discovered that people were often naturally much more able than computers to see 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.”