December 14, 2011

Whale FM: Calling all Citizen Scientists

Pilot whales. You can hear their newest singles on Whale FM.

We’re professional scientists, ooh aah.  But do you know about “Citizen Science”?

Citizen Science falls into many categories, and usually involves harnessing the power of the Internet.  Laypeople can work on projects like SETI@Home, the groundbreaking project that had millions of participants (with time to kill) helping in the search for extraterrestrial life. Citizen scientists also  volunteer to classify heavenly objects, like in Galaxy Zoo,  observe the natural world, as in The Great Sunflower Project, and even solve puzzles to design proteins, as in the project called FoldIt.

Scientific American keeps tabs on such projects, and has co-sponsored this one with the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).

The Whale Song Project (also known as Whale FM), invites citizen scientists to help study whale communications and pass along their observations. The Whale Song Project, which is also available as part of the CSA’s suite of Zooniverse projects, was created to help with  killer (Orca) and pilot whale research being conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

This orca duo's about to go platinum.

(You can tell the Scottish whales because of their charming brogues.  Sorry, we couldn’t resist.  Ahem.  Moving on…

Here’s how it works. You’re presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas. After listening to it —represented on screen as a spectrogram which shows how the pitch of the sound changes over time—you’re asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project’s database. If there’s a match, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound’s spectrogram to store the results.

The data set generated by this project should help the researchers to answer a number of questions about how whales communicate. For example, the (professional) scientists want to know the size of the pilot whales’ call repertoire, and whether repertoire size is a sign of intelligence. They’re also trying to understand whether the two different types of pilot whales (long fin and short fin) have different call repertoires, and, if so, whether this “signifies a distinct dialect.”

We think it’s extraordinary and hope you’ll give it a look — or rather, a listen.

As Steely Dan says, “no static at all.”

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    "The Next Forever" is a song from The Great Immensity. The footage was taken on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal by videographer David Ford. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman.
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