December 12, 2023, Mountain View, CA -- A team of scientists from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation, had a close encounter with a non-human (aquatic) intelligence. The Whale-SETI team has been studying humpback whale communication systems in an effort to develop intelligence filters for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. In response to a recorded humpback ‘contact’ call played into the sea via an underwater speaker, a humpback whale named Twain approached and circled the team’s boat, while responding in a conversational style to the whale ‘greeting signal.’ During the 20-minute exchange, Twain responded to each playback call and matched the interval variations between each signal.
A description and analysis of the encounter appears in a recent issue of the journal Peer J. entitled: “Interactive Bioacoustic Playback as a Tool for Detecting and Exploring Nonhuman Intelligence: “Conversing” with an Alaskan Humpback Whale.” “We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback “language,” said lead author Dr. Brenda McCowan of U.C. Davis. “Humpback whales are extremely intelligent, have complex social systems, make tools - nets out of bubbles to catch fish -, and communicate extensively with both songs and social calls,” said coauthor Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation.
“Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers. This important assumption is certainly supported by the behavior of humpback whales,” said Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute, a coauthor on the paper.
Similar to studying Antarctica as a proxy for Mars, the Whale-SETI team is studying intelligent, terrestrial, non-human communication systems to develop filters to apply to any extraterrestrial signals received. The mathematics of information theory to quantify communicative complexity - (for example rule structure embedded in a received message) will be utilized.
Other team members and coauthors of the paper are Dr. Josie Hubbard, Lisa Walker, and Jodi Frediani, with specialties in animal intelligences, humpback whale song analysis, and photography and behavior of humpback whales, respectively. A second paper by the team will soon be available on the non-audio communicative behavior of humpback whales - bubble rings made in the presence of (and possibly for) humans. The authors would like to acknowledge the Templeton Foundation Diverse Intelligences Program for financial support of this work.
Research conducted under NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Research Permit 19703.
About the SETI Institute
Founded in 1984, the SETI Institute is a non-profit, multi-disciplinary research and education organization whose mission is to lead humanity's quest to understand the origins and prevalence of life and intelligence in the universe and share that knowledge with the world. Our research encompasses the physical and biological sciences and leverages data analytics, machine learning, and advanced signal detection technologies. The SETI Institute is a distinguished research partner for industry, academia, and government agencies, including NASA and the National Science Foundation.
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