SETI Talks - Whales, their song, their culture: another intelligence on Earth

SETI Talks

Tags: SETI, SETI Talks

Time: Tuesday, Feb 15, 2022 -

Location: Online

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Whales have been on this planet for longer than humans have walked upright. Are they intelligent? Linguists contend that even the most intelligent non-human animals lack a communication system that could be called language. But could whales prove an exception?

Biologists have studied whales for decades and quickly realized that they lead complex social lives. 

For example, sperm whales have the animal kingdom’s biggest brains, six times larger than ours. They live in female-dominated social networks and exchange codas in a staccato duet, especially when near the surface. They segregate into clans of hundreds or thousands, identifying themselves using different click codas. In a sense, clans speak different dialects. 

Interestingly, this is a complex communication and a musical culture for humpback whales. Deep-sea recordings have shown that their songs  change over time. New ones appear regularly and evolve across the Pacific ocean, transmitted from one individual to others over several years.

Scientists recently envisioned developing an ambitious new Apollo program to create a translation tool  from those aliens of the deep. The quest, dubbed Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative), is likely the most extensive interspecies communication effort in history.

We invited two renowned whale biologists to describe their research and discuss the culture of whales, the understanding of their song and this ambitious CETI. Ellen Garland from the University of St Andrews, UK, focuses primarily on  cultural transmission, vocal learning, and function of humpback whale song and Shane Gero, Scientist-In-Residence at Ottawa’s Carleton University and  Founder of The Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

Senior Astronomer Franck Marchis will moderate this conversation. They will discuss how we may be on the verge of understanding what whales say to one another as they go about their lives in the wild and how this work might provide a framework for conversing with extraterrestrial life in the future.

Sponsored by Edward Dauer

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Ellen Garland

Ellen Garland completed her Ph.D. in Bioacoustics in the Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory at the University of Queensland, Australia, in 2011. Her research focused on the cultural transmission of humpback whale song and metapopulation structure in the western and central South Pacific Ocean. She then undertook a three-year National Academy of Sciences (National Research Council) postdoctoral fellowship at the Marine Mammal Laboratory (AFSC, NMFS, NOAA) in Seattle, USA, investigating geographic variation in vocalizations from sympatric populations of beluga whales in the Alaskan Arctic. In 2015 she was awarded a Royal Society Newton International Fellowship to continue my work on humpback whale song culture at the University of St Andrews, UK. She subsequently was awarded a five-year Royal Society University Research Fellowship in 2017 to expand her work on song culture, learning and function. Her board research interests include animal culture, social learning, bioacoustics, and behavioral ecology. Her main research focuses on cetaceans, and in particular the cultural transmission, vocal learning, and function of humpback whale song. She is also interested in vocal sequence analysis techniques and using similarity in vocal displays to define population structures for conservation management.

Shane Gero

Shane Gero is a Canadian whale biologist whose research is at the forefront of understanding cetacean societies, communication systems, and their cultures. He is the Founder of The Dominica Sperm Whale Project, a long-term research program focused on the sperm whale families living in the Eastern Caribbean, which has provided unprecedented detail about the lives of these enigmatic ocean nomads. Through thousands of hours of observation since 2005, his and the DSWP team’s research focuses on the behavioral ecology of whales and publishes on topics as diverse as anthropogenic disturbance, diet, f oraging ecology, habitat use, acoustic communication, whale culture, genetic population structure, animal social networks, and population biology. Shane is also the Biology Lead for Project CETI, an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional, TED Audacious Project applying advanced machine learning and gentle robotics to decipher sperm whale communication. Gero earned his PhD at Dalhousie University and is currently a Scientist-In-Residence at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Gero is also Adjunct at Dalhousie University, an Affiliated Researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark, and a National Geographic Explorer.

Portrait Credit: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic.

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