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The crowd called to decipher whale songs

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

In this file photo, a pilot whale with an injured nose rises out of the water as a pod of approximately 100 gather in Loch Carron in Scotland. A new crowdsourcing project is attempting to decipher pilot whale calls.

The collective wisdom of the crowd is being called upon to help scientists decipher the language of pilot and killer whales in a project that could help us operate our machines in harmony with the ocean giants.

To participate, log on to Whale.fm, a project sponsored by Zooniverse and Scientific American, and try to match up similar sounding whale calls. 


The researchers behind the project hope that the wisdom of the crowd will more accurately match the calls than one user can alone.

That is, what I think are two similar sounding calls might not be what you think. If hundreds or thousands of people group the same sounds together, though, they're more likely a match.

Whale.fm is particularly important for basic pilot whale research, since scientists know so little about them. What they do know suggests they communicate in similar ways to killer whales, which are known to live in family groups and communicate among themselves in unique dialects.

Scientists collected the whale calls over the years with underwater microphones suctioned onto whales, dragged behind ships and attached to buoys. Each sound and a corresponding spectrogram — a visual representation of the whale sound snippet — are presented for users to find a match.

The site also plots on a world map where the call was recorded and even offers users an option to track specific whales. 

If all goes well and lots of people participate, researchers should get answers to questions such as the size of the pilot whale call repertoire, any differences between the repertoires of long and short finned pilot whales, and how, if at all, the calls change amid noise such as sonar.

The project will also let researchers know how well volunteers agree with each other and, thus, how good we are at collectively categorizing the calls of vocal species such as whales.

This type of crowdsourcing — tapping the wisdom of the crowd to form a collective intelligence — has been used for other research projects in the past, including Zooniverse's Planet Hunters, which is harnessing crowds to find new planets.

If the crowd turns out to be wise enough to help researchers decipher whale songs, what else can we do?

More on crowdsourcing projects:


John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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