Communicating with Whales

Scientists are using humpback whale communication to learn about how other intelligent species might communicate.

What do whales and aliens have in common? This might sound like the start of a joke, but this is a question that scientists are seriously thinking about.

In a recent study, scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, UC Davis, and the Alaska Whale Foundation worked together to have a conversation with a whale. Scientists hope to use what they learned from this conversation to learn about communicating with extraterrestrials, or life from beyond Earth.

In the study, the scientists played a recorded contact call and a humpback whale named Twain responded. A contact call is like a greeting and can be used to tell other whales where they are. It is like saying, “Hello.” The scientists repeated the contact call several times, with different amounts of time in between. Twain would repeat the contact call and mimic the interval. Twain seemed very curious. She circled the scientists’ boat as she talked back to them, and the conversation lasted 20 minutes. This is thought to be the first time that humans have communicated with whales.

Scientists think that if extraterrestrials are out there, they might try to communicate with humans in a similar way. Scientists hope to conduct similar studies using other animals, such as dolphins. They plan to use what they learn from their conversations with whales and other non-human species to make a filter that could identify signals from extraterrestrials. What will they find? What Do You Think? If extraterrestrials are out there, do you think they would try to communicate with us? Why or why not?

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