World's First 'Conversation' Between Humans and Whales Could Help Us Communicate with Aliens Someday, Scientists Claim

Image credit: Jodi Frediani

   New research suggests that humpback whale "conversations" could offer valuable insights into how humans might communicate with extraterrestrial life in the future. A collaborative effort involving researchers from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis, and the Alaska Whale Foundation engaged in a unique interaction with a humpback whale named Twain. Using an underwater speaker, they recorded a humpback "contact" call and played it back to Twain, who responded by matching the interval variations between signals during a 20-minute period.

This form of interspecies communication has drawn parallels with sci-fi scenarios, evoking memories of a Star Trek film where the crew receives alien whale transmissions that can only be decoded underwater. Interestingly, this demonstration holds implications for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), as stated by the SETI Institute.

Brenda McCowan, the lead author of the study from U.C. Davis, highlighted that the recent interaction with the humpback whale, Twain, represents what is believed to be the first communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales using the whale's unique "language."

Similar to how astronaut crews simulate missions to Mars or the moon on Earth, the Whale-SETI team is delving into the study of humpback whale communication systems. This exploration aims to enhance our understanding of how to detect and interpret signals from outer space. The insights gained from studying humpback whale communication could be instrumental in developing filters applicable to any extraterrestrial signals received, as outlined in the statement.

Laurance Doyle, coauthor of the study from the SETI Institute, pointed out a crucial assumption in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, noting that current technological limitations assume that extraterrestrials, if interested in contact, would target human receivers. Doyle highlighted that this assumption aligns with the behavior observed in humpback whales, as evidenced by the study.

The response of Twain, the humpback whale, to each playback call demonstrated a sophisticated level of understanding and interaction. Notably, the whale approached and circled the team's boat upon hearing the contact call played via an underwater speaker. The ability to match interval variations between each call, resembling a human-like conversational style, adds depth to the understanding of interspecies communication, as outlined in the study.

Fred Sharpe, co-author of the study from the Alaska Whale Foundation, highlighted the remarkable intelligence of humpback whales, emphasizing their complex social systems, tool-making abilities—such as creating nets out of bubbles to catch fish—and extensive communication through both songs and social calls.

Engaging with humpback whales provides a distinctive opportunity to explore intelligent communication in non-human species. The team intends to leverage principles of information theory derived from these interactions to develop filters that can enhance the processing of extraterrestrial signals and contribute to the ongoing search for intelligent life beyond Earth.