Animals
6:45 am
Sun December 4, 2011

Name That Tune: Identifying Whale Songs For Science

Originally published on Sun December 4, 2011 10:34 am

Marine biologists are turning to citizen scientists, sitting at home in front of their computers, to help unlock the secrets of whale songs.

In Pixar's aquatic adventure Finding Nemo, Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, attempts to communicate with a whale to find the missing title character. She speaks in a loud, slow drawl to the whale, but when that fails, she says, "Maybe a different dialect."

"We actually know that killer whales do use dialects," marine biologist Peter Tyack tells Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish. Despite the tongue-in-cheek depiction of whale songs, Tyack says the film got it right.

"We don't know what the sounds mean, but each killer whale family has its own set of calls, like a dialect in human language," he says.

Tyack, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews, is also a coordinator of Whale FM, a new online experiment that's recruiting citizen scientists to study killer and pilot whale calls from around the world.

"The experiment is the first step in understanding how these whales communicate," he says. "The first thing we need to know is how to categorize their calls."

His research team needs help to sort through almost 15,000 different sound recordings and group similar ones together. That's where you, the citizen scientist, come in.

Tyack's team is counting on whale-song lovers to log on to Whale FM and listen to sounds of various whales calling to each other.

Tyack says much about whale communication remains a mystery for scientists, and he hopes crowdsourcing this new study may lead to some answers.

"We share a mammalian hearing system with killer whales and we think that lots of people, just using their own ears, should be able to make good matches of these calls," he says. "And the more people who decide, the better sense we get of how reliable their judgments are."

In the end, Tyack says, one of the major parts of the crowdsourcing concept of the project is to promote the fact that anyone can take part in science.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Researchers in the field of marine biology are turning to you. Yes, you at home, in front of the computer to help unlock the secrets of whale songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FINDING NEMO")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (as Character) Are you sure you speak whales?

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SOUNDS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (as Character) Sorry, heaven knows what you're saying.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (as Character) Maybe a different dialect.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SOUNDS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE TWO: (as Character) Dory, Dory, this is not whale. You're speaking like upset stomach.

CORNISH: That of course was a clip from the animated film "Finding Nemo" and Peter Tayak says the movie got it right.

PETER TYACK: We actually know that killer whales do use dialects. We don't know what the sounds mean but each killer whale family has it's own set of calls like a dialect in human language.

CORNISH: Tyack's a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews. He's also a coordinator of Whale FM, a new online experiment that's recruiting citizen-scientists to study killer and pilot whale calls from around the world. Tyack says his research team needs help to sort through almost 15,000 different sound recordings and group similar sounding ones together.

, UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREWS: The experiment is the first step in understanding how these whales communicate. The first thing we need to know is how to categorize their calls.

CORNISH: That's where you, the citizen scientist comes in. Tyack's team is counting on whale song lovers to log onto Whale.FM and listen to sounds like this:

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SOUNDS)

, UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREWS: What you're listening to is a group of killer whales recorded off British Columbia. Animals are calling back and forth in a complicated chorus.

CORNISH: If those whales sounded like dolphins its because killer and pilot whales, the focus of Tyack's study, are actually more closely related to dolphins than other whales like the humpback. Still Tyack says much about whale communication remains a mystery for scientists and he hopes crowd sourcing this new study may lead to some answers.

, UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREWS: We share a mammalian hearing system with killer whales and we think that lots of people just using their own ears should be able to make good matches of these calls and the more people who decide the better sense we get of how reliable their judgments are.

CORNISH: In the end, do you think these experiments also kind of open up the scientific community to the public and vice versa?

, UNIVERSITY OF ST. ANDREWS: Yes, a major part of the crowd sourcing concept is that anybody can take part in doing science.

CORNISH: And you just might discover some secrets of the deep with a click of a mouse. You can listen to more whale songs and find the link to the new citizen science experiment WhaleFM on NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR NEWS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.