Public identify whale ‘dialects’

Members of the public are being asked by scientists at the University of St Andrews to help them investigate the way whales communicate.

So-called “citizen scientists” from across the world are being urged to listen to and help classify sounds made by the mammals.

The St Andrews Sea Mammal Research Unit is part of the Whale Project – a global effort to categorise whale calls.

It aims to establish whether calls vary between different groups of whales.

The Whale Project website site displays calls from both killer whales and pilot whales.

“Citizen scientists” who log on are presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas.

Distinctive dialect

After listening to the whale call, members of the public are then asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project’s database.

If a match is found the results are stored.

Prof Peter Tyack of the University of St Andrews said: “By asking hundreds of people to make similar judgements, we will learn how reliable the categories are, and they get the fun of hearing these amazing sounds.”

“Only a few researchers have categorised whale calls.”

Scientists hope to address a number of questions about whale communication.

Biologists studying killer whales have reported that each group of whales has its own distinctive dialect of calls, with related groups having dialects that are more similar.

The Whale Project asks “citizen scientists” to test these results by making their own judgements of similarity between calls.

Much less is known about the calls of pilot whales than of killer whales.

Researchers from St Andrews and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts want to know the size of the pilot whales’ call repertoire and whether call repertoires vary between groups, as in killer whales.

“Most mammals have a fixed species-specific repertoire of calls, but killer whales are thought to learn their calls from their group,” said Prof Tyack.

The Whale Project is co-sponsored by science magazine, Scientific American.

Those interested in taking part should go to the Scientific American website to set up a login and password.