Whale-SETI: Humpback Whale Encounter Reveals Potential for Non-Human Intelligence Communication

Head and front flippers of a whale out of the water
Brenda McCowan at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is working with researchers at the SETI Institute to study communication with humpback whales. (Mark Malleson/Getty Images)

A team of scientists from the SETI Institute, the 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

“We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback “language,” said lead author Brenda McCowan, professor of population health and reproduction at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

“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  Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation.  

A blonde woman in blue shirt and glasses and a man with dark curly hair and dark glasses work on laptops aboard a boat.
McCowan and Sharpe at work. Photo by Jodi Frediani.

“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 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 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.

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