Open Innovation Tunes into Whale Song

Published Jan-29-12

An open innovation initiative to get the crowd to decode whale song.

Scientific American/The Zooniverse, United States

The Story:

 Open Innovation Tunes into Whale Song Marine scientists have launched a global call for help deciphering the language of pilot and killer whales. Currently, understanding of their communication is poor with many of their calls remaining a mystery.

This open innovation experiment is asking wildlife enthusiasts to determine new phrases, meanings and dialects from approximately 15,000 recordings. They were recorded from animals that had been tagged with ‘D-Tags’, non-invasive tags that are attached to whales like suction cups and eventually fall off.

Unlocking the Mysteries of the Deep

The Whale Project is a joint initiative between Scientific American and the citizen science organisation The Zooniverse. Participants who log onto the website will be asked to study and compare the spectrograms, or sound wave patterns, of calls made by different pods from all over the world. The recordings can be played back time and again to help users match segments.

So why not just use computers for this? Well, according to the scientists we humans are better at spotting differences in spectrogram patterns.

“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,” said Prof Ian Boyd, one of the project's collaborators, in an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “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.”

New Discoveries

Every recording is linked to a specific location in the sea, allowing the scientists to match them to areas where specific whale families are known to live.

Whales have a complex repertoire of calls and the sounds they make are not only for communication but also for orientation and foraging under water. By investigating the differences between each group’s call it is hoped that different kinds of messages and perhaps new phrases can be discovered.

Understanding Whale Calls

One of the motivations for the project is to find out how man-made noises such as those caused by shipping and the search for oil and gas affect whales. The recordings were made during behavioural response studies and the calls may reveal how and why marine mammals respond to various sound stimuli.

According to the Whale Project analysis of whale song by the crowd will help marine scientists answer a number of key questions:

1) How well do different judgements of volunteers agree, and how well can we categorize calls of vocal species such as pilot whales?

2) How large is the call repertoire of pilot whales? (is size repertoire sign of intelligence?)

3) Do the long and short finned pilot whales have different call repertoires (or ‘dialects’?)

4) Does this repertoire change during sonar transmissions? If so, how does this related to changes in behaviour of the individuals and the group as a whole?

Participants do not have to be scientists to get involved. All that is needed is an intellectual curiosity and an enthusiasm for wildlife. The project is free to join and you can sign up and take part at

Share on      
Next Story »

What Can we Solve for You?