What do whale experts and alien hunters have in common? More than you might expect.
For a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ, scientists from UC Davis, the Alaska Whale Foundation, and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) teamed up.
Their mission: Communicate with whales. And they did just that.
In a landmark experiment, the team had a 20-minute conversation with a humpback whale named Twain in her own language.
Twain did not talk to the scientists about weather reports or fish gossip. We are still far from this level of understanding.
What happened, however, was amazing.
Conversing with whales
The scientists sailed a boat off the coast of Alaska and played what’s called a “contact call” into the ocean to see if any whales would respond.
Contact calls are similar to a human greeting. Business Insider reported that Brenda McCowan is the lead author of this study and a professor of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. She said whales make contact calls to let other whales know their location or call them over.
“They are one of the most common signals within the humpback whale social sound repertoire,” Fred Sharpe, co-author and principal investigator with the Alaska Whale Foundation, told Business Insider.
Sure enough, Twain swam up to the boat and circled it. For the next 20 minutes, the scientists emitted the same contact call 36 different times at varying intervals, and Twain responded to the call each time, even closely matching the intervals.
Meaning, if the scientists waited 10 seconds before playing a call back to Twain, she would in turn wait 10 seconds before responding, McCowan said. This type of interval matching suggests Twain was engaged in an intentional exchange, she added.
“It felt like we were heard,” Sharpe said to BI. She stressed that the work was done under a National Marine Fisheries Service permit and that readers shouldn’t try it at home or on the sea. “And we hope that she felt the same way, too.”
The calls were recorded by researchers from whales in a group the day prior to their encounter. The group had included Twain, so it’s possible Twain was responding to her own signal.
“We could’ve played back her own Hello to her,” Sharpe said.
So what does this have to do with talking to aliens?
Turns out, Twain’s behavior could be akin to how intelligent alien races may seek humanity out, said Laurance Doyle, a principal investigator at the SETI Institute and coauthor on the paper.
Communicating with extraterrestrials
“An important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers,” sort of like how Twain responded to the contact call from the scientists, Doyle said in a statement.
Doyle and his colleagues at SETI are working with whale and animal experts at UC Davis and the Alaska Whale Foundation to create intelligent filters to aid in their search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
If extraterrestrials were out there sending signals and trying to communicate with us, we could miss them if they weren’t looking for it, Doyle said to BI.
By perfecting these intelligent filters, scientists could use them to identify intelligent signals from space in an attempt to make first contact with an alien race.
“There are diverse intelligences on this planet, and by studying them, we can better understand what an alien intelligence might be like, because they’re not going to be exactly like ours,” McCowan said.
The study is testing whether intelligent aliens would seek out humans, Doyle said.
“Whale research has indicated if you’re intelligent, curiosity comes along with that, and you want to make contact,” Doyle said.
The researchers said that they hope to carry out similar research with other intelligent species on Earth. This includes other cetaceans, such as dolphins, cooperative carnivores who hunt together, and highly social animals like meerkats or elephants.