Help Scientists Learn the Language of Whales by Listening In

by Owen James Burke


Scientists and linguisticians have come a long way since the first recordings of ‘whale songs’ in 1970 (Songs of the Humpback Whale). In 1999, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution developed a digital tag with an underwater microphone that allows whales to be tracked using harmless, non-intrusive tags called “D-tags” (digital tags) which attach using suction cups and record sounds with hydrophones (underwater microphones) before eventually falling off. The past 15 years of planting these “D-tags,” along with trolling and floating them on buoys (to capture cetacean sounds from afar), have generated an abundance of new data — perhaps more than researchers are able to process. This is where you come in…


Above: A D-tag on a pilot whale (Photo: Scientific American)

This is how it works:

…You are presented with a call and shown where it was recorded on the map. The call is represented as a spectrogram, which shows the shape of the sound. You can click on the spectrogram to hear the call itself. 

…When you find a sound that is a possible match, click on the check mark and it will be enlarged and displayed next two the main sound on the map. Now you can check that they are alike, and either select another or click ‘MATCH’ to confirm your choice.

After you click ‘MATCH’, the pairing will be recorded in our database and a new main sound will be displayed, along with a new set of potential matches.

Read more on WhaleFM — OB

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