It’s common knowledge that dolphins communicate with each other but did you know that killer whales and pilot whales also belong to the dolphin species and that they too converse! As part of an exciting study of the sounds these fascinating mammals make, scientists at St Andrews are seeking the public’s assistance to categorise them.
It has been long established that each family of killer whale has its own dialect. Many of their sophisticated communications have already been studied and categorised. Recent research however has shown that pilot whales also produce similar calls of complicated combinations of pulsed and tonal components. Their sounds have been harder to acquire and study, partly because they are less likely than their killer whale relations to inhabit the seas close to land. Now a team of scientific organisations, which includes The Sea and Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews, have collaborated on this exciting challenge and collated pilot whale sounds from around the world. The next task is to categorise them, to potentially decipher meaning and expand our understanding of these creatures and ensure their protection.
A website, Whale.fm, has been set up which invites the masses to become ‘citizen scientists’ and help sort the sounds. Using sound bites of both, killer and pilot whale calls, people are asked to listen and pair the noises they find most similar. The increasing size of the sound database and the large variation make it difficult for scientists alone to effectively categorise the material. A single person would take months to go through the data, and the results would be limited by the persons’ individual interpretation – hence the call for the masses to help solve the puzzle! You can assist determine how the dialects are grouped. Every time you pair calls together you’re casting your vote for those two calls to be considered ‘similar. Through this process patterns will emerge and dialect groupings can be established.
At Edinburgh International Science Festival we love to see the Scottish public getting actively involved with science. WhaleFM invites you to play a crucial part of this very worthwhile study. What’s more listening to the whale sounds is interesting and the puzzle-like challenge of pairing them – fun! Lend science your ears and show your support for this fascinating study.