Scientists connect with whales in world’s first communication experiment: ScienceAlert

What do whale experts and alien hunters have in common? More than you would expect.

For a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ, scientists from the University of California, Davis, the Alaska Whale Foundation and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) teamed up.

Their mission: Communicate with the whales. And they did just that.

In a remarkable experiment, the team had a 20-minute conversation with a humpback whale named Twain in her own language.

Twain and the scientists did not talk about the weather or the latest fish gossip – we are still far from that level of understanding.

What happened, however, was remarkable.

Talking to whales

Scientists took a boat off the coast of Alaska and released what they call a “contact call” into the ocean to see if any whales would respond.

Contact calls are similar to a human greeting. Whales use them to call other whales or communicate their whereabouts, lead author Brenda McCowan, a professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told Business Insider.

“They are one of the most common signals in the humpback whale’s repertoire of social sounds,” Fred Sharp, co-author and principal investigator at the Alaska Whale Foundation, told Business Insider.

Sure enough, Twain swam up to the boat and went around it. Over the next 20 minutes, the scientists issued the same contact call 36 different times at different intervals, and Twain answered the call each time, even nearly matching the intervals.

That means if the scientists wait 10 seconds before placing a callback to Twain, she will in turn wait 10 seconds before answering, McCowan said. This type of interval matching suggests that Twain engaged in a deliberate exchange, she added.

“It certainly felt like we were heard,” Sharpe told BI, stressing that their work was done with permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service and readers shouldn’t try this at home (or at sea). “And we hope she felt the same way.”

“We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language,'” McCowan said in a statement.

The calls came from humpback whales, which the researchers recorded from a small group of whales just a day before their encounter. The group included Twain, so it’s possible that Twain was responding to her own signal.

“We might have been playing her her own greeting,” Sharpe said.

So what does this have to do with talking to aliens?

It turns out that Twain’s behavior may be similar to how intelligent extraterrestrial races might seek out humanity, said Lawrence Doyle, principal investigator at the SETI Institute and co-author of the paper.

Communicating with aliens

“An important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so will target human receivers,” something similar to how Twain responded to the call for contact from scientists, Doyle said in a statement.

Doyle and his SETI colleagues are working with whale and animal experts at the University of California, Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation to create smart filters to aid in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

If aliens are out there, sending us signals, trying to communicate, we might miss them if we don’t know what to look for, Doyle told BI.

By perfecting these smart filters, scientists could use them to identify intelligent signals from space in an attempt to make first contact with an alien race.

“There are different intelligences on this planet, and by studying them, we can better understand what an alien intelligence might be like, because they won’t be exactly like ours,” McCowan said.

The research also tests the idea of ​​whether intelligent alien life will ever seek us out, Doyle told BI.

“Research on whales has shown that if you’re intelligent, curiosity comes along with that and you want to make contact,” Doyle said.

The scientists said they hope similar work can be done with other intelligent animals on Earth, including other cetaceans like dolphins, carnivores that cooperate to hunt, and other highly social species like meerkats and elephants.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

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