Article image

"Conversation" with humpback whale gives SETI team ideas on how to talk to aliens

A collaborative team from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis, and the Alaska Whale Foundation has made significant strides in understanding non-human intelligence.

Their remarkable encounter with a humpback whale, known as Twain, has shed new light on interspecies communication and its implications for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The Whale-SETI project

The Whale-SETI team has been diligently working to unravel the mysteries of humpback whale communication. This endeavor is part of a larger effort to develop intelligence filters for the search for extraterrestrial life. Humpback whales, known for their complex social structures and communication methods, offer a unique opportunity to study intelligent communication in non-human species.

The team’s encounter with Twain the humpback whale marks a significant milestone. Using an underwater speaker, the team played a recorded humpback ‘contact’ call. To their amazement, Twain approached their boat and engaged in what can only be described as a ‘conversation.’

Over a 20-minute period, Twain responded to each playback call, cleverly matching the interval variations between signals, showcasing a sophisticated level of understanding and interaction.

The study provides a thorough description and analysis of the interaction, offering insights into the cognitive abilities of humpback whales.

Perspectives from the Whale-SETI team

Dr. Brenda McCowan, from U.C. Davis, emphasized the uniqueness of this interaction. “We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language,’” she noted.

Dr. McCowan further highlighted the intelligence of these majestic creatures, mentioning their complex social systems, tool-making abilities, and extensive communication through songs and social calls.

Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation echoed these sentiments. He stressed the advanced intelligence of humpback whales and their sophisticated methods of communication and social interaction.

“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 Sharpe.

Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute drew parallels between this encounter and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He pointed out the significance of assuming that extraterrestrials, like humpback whales, would be interested in making contact.

“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 Doyle.

This assumption is vital for the SETI initiative, as it guides the approach to detecting and interpreting signals from outer space.

Extraterrestrial intelligence research

The Whale-SETI team’s work extends beyond marine biology. By studying terrestrial, intelligent, non-human communication systems, they aim to develop sophisticated filters for any extraterrestrial signals. The team plans to apply the principles of information theory to quantify the complexity of communication, a technique that could prove invaluable in the search for intelligent life beyond Earth.

In summary, the interaction between the Whale-SETI team and Twain the humpback whale opens new doors in understanding non-human intelligence. It not only enhances our knowledge of humpback whales but also provides critical insights for the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This encounter is a testament to the untapped mysteries of communication and intelligence, both on Earth and potentially beyond.

More about SETI

As mentioned above, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is a scientific endeavor that captures the imagination of people worldwide. Its mission is simple yet profound: to explore, understand, and explain the origin, nature, and prevalence of life in the universe. SETI researchers use advanced technology to listen for signals from distant galaxies, hoping to discover signs of intelligent life beyond Earth.

History of SETI

SETI’s journey began in the mid-20th century when the field of radio astronomy expanded our understanding of the universe. In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake initiated Project Ozma, the first experiment dedicated to searching for extraterrestrial signals. Although Project Ozma did not detect alien communications, it laid the groundwork for future SETI efforts.

Evolution of SETI

Over the decades, SETI has evolved significantly. The advent of more powerful computers and sophisticated software has enhanced the ability to scan the skies more effectively. The SETI Institute, established in 1984, has been a pivotal organization in coordinating these efforts, bringing together scientists from various disciplines to collaborate on this grand quest.

SETI’s methodologies

The most common method employed by SETI is searching for radio signals. Scientists use large radio telescopes to listen for unusual signals that might indicate the presence of intelligent life. These signals are differentiated from cosmic background noise and natural astronomical phenomena.

In addition to radio waves, SETI researchers also explore the optical spectrum. Optical SETI involves searching for brief pulses of light that could be produced by advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. These pulses, often lasting mere fractions of a second, can be indicators of intelligent communication.

Challenges facing SETI

One of the greatest challenges for SETI is the sheer size of the universe. With billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, the task of finding signals is akin to finding a needle in a cosmic haystack.

Despite rapid advancements in technology, SETI still faces limitations. Detecting faint signals from faraway civilizations requires incredibly sensitive equipment and the ability to distinguish these signals from Earth-based interference.

SETI’s quest is also hampered by inconsistent funding and support. As a field that ventures into the unknown, securing continuous funding for research and technological upgrades remains a constant challenge.

Future of SETI

The future of SETI is bright with the promise of new technologies. Projects like the Breakthrough Listen Initiative, funded by private donors, aim to accelerate the search using state-of-the-art equipment.

SETI’s future also depends on global collaboration. By pooling resources and expertise, scientists from around the world can maximize the chances of detecting extraterrestrial intelligence.

SETI researchers also contemplate the implications of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. This includes preparing for the societal, philosophical, and ethical considerations that such a discovery would entail.

In summary, SETI stands at the forefront of one of humanity’s most profound questions: Are we alone in the universe? While the search is challenging and the odds uncertain, the potential discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would be one of the most significant moments in human history, reshaping our understanding of life and our place in the cosmos.

Through continued dedication and innovation, SETI keeps us listening to the stars, ever hopeful for a signal from the unknown.

The full study was published in the journal Peer J.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day