Citizen scientists chart whale song

30 November 2011

Citizen scientists are being asked to use their ears for the first time with the launch of the whale-song project, Whale FM , a partnership between 'Scientific American' and the Zooniverse team at Oxford University.

Zooniverse founder, Chris Lintott, Co-Director, Programme on Computational Cosmology, said: ‘The Zooniverse has asked the public to classify galaxies, decode ancient papyri, transcribe WW1 ship’s logs and even map the galaxy. With Whale FM we are asking them to use their ears for the first time.’

The project aims to help marine researchers better understand how Killer Whales and Pilot Whales communicate.

The Whale FM website displays calls from both Orcas (Killer Whales) and the lesser known Pilot Whales. Citizen scientists are presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world's oceans and seas. After listening to the whale call, which is represented on screen as a spectrogram showing how the pitch of the sound changes with time, the volunteers are asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project's database. If a match is found, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound's spectrogram and the results are stored.

‘Collecting and processing more than 16,000 unique whale calls was a new challenge for the Zooniverse team,’ said Robert Simpson of Oxford University, lead developer for Whale FM. ‘As everyone matches up pairs of sounds we are creating a web of whale ‘words’ to help marine biologists understand how whales communicate. The variety of calls you hear on Whale FM show you that they obviously talk to each other about a lot of different things!’

‘One doesn’t need a science degree to be a citizen scientist,’ said Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief of Scientific American. ‘All you need is a curiosity about the world around you and an interest in observing, measuring and reporting what you hear and see. We are pleased to work with The Zooniverse on this scientifically interesting and enjoyable project.’

The dataset generated by this project will enable scientists to address a number of questions regarding whale communication. For example, biologists studying killer whales report that each group of whales has its own distinctive dialect of calls, with related groups having dialects that are more similar. The Whale FM calls on citizen scientists to test these results by making their own judgments of similarity between calls.

‘Only a few researchers have categorized whale calls,’ said Peter Tyack of the University of St Andrews. ‘By asking hundreds of people to make similar judgments, we will learn how reliable the categories are, and they get the fun of hearing these amazing sounds.’

Much less is known about the calls of pilot whales than of killer whales. Researchers, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews in Scotland want to know the size of the Pilot Whales' call repertoire and whether call repertoires vary between groups as in killer whales. Whale FM welcomes citizen scientists to help researchers to discover the call repertoires of pilot whales and to study how vocal traditions vary between different groups of whales.

Photo by Barney Moss
Source: University of Oxford