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Scientists have a 20-minute "conversation" with a humpback whale named Twain

In an unprecedented encounter, a research team successfully engaged in a “conversation” with a humpback whale named Twain.

The team, known as Whale-SETI, has been conducting research on humpback whale communication systems, aiming to develop intelligence filters for the search for extraterrestrial life.

Scientists from the SETI Institute, University of California Davis, and the Alaska Whale Foundation made this amazing breakthrough in the field of non-human intelligence.

How to have a conversation with a whale

Using a recorded humpback “contact” call played into the sea through an underwater speaker, the scientists were amazed as Twain approached and circled their boat, responding in a conversational manner to the whale’s “greeting signal.”

Throughout the 20-minute exchange, Twain consistently matched the interval variations between each playback call.

The details of this extraordinary encounter can be found in the recent issue of the journal Peer J, titled “Interactive Bioacoustic Playback as a Tool for Detecting and Exploring Nonhuman Intelligence: ‘Conversing’ with an Alaskan Humpback Whale.”

Lead author Dr. Brenda McCowan of U.C. Davis explains the significance of this whale conversation, stating, “We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language.'”

Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation further emphasizes the intelligence of humpback whales, highlighting their abilities to engage in complex social systems, create tools such as nets made of bubbles to catch fish, and extensively communicate through songs and social calls.

Whales and extraterrestrial intelligence

The behavior observed in humpback whales supports an important assumption in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute is another coauthor of the paper.

He explains, “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.”

Drawing parallels to studying Antarctica as a proxy for Mars, the Whale-SETI team is utilizing their findings from the study of intelligent, terrestrial, non-human communication systems to develop filters that can be applied to any potential extraterrestrial signals received.

Implications and future research

The team will be employing the mathematics of information theory to quantify the communicative complexity, such as the rule structure embedded in a received message.

In addition to the lead researchers, Dr. Josie Hubbard, Lisa Walker, and Jodi Frediani, who specialize in animal intelligence, humpback whale song analysis, and photography and behavior of humpback whales, respectively, are also coauthors of the paper.

The Whale-SETI team is currently preparing a second paper on the non-audio communicative behavior of humpback whales, specifically focusing on bubble rings made in the presence of (and possibly for) humans.

The authors would like to acknowledge the Templeton Foundation Diverse Intelligences Program for their generous financial support in conducting this groundbreaking research.

More about Whale-SETI

As discussed above, Whale-SETI, short for Whale Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, marks a revolutionary stride in understanding marine mammals, particularly whales.

This project blends the search for extraterrestrial intelligence with marine biology, aiming to decode whale communication. It operates under the hypothesis that whale sounds contain complex, intelligent messages akin to languages used by humans or potentially, extraterrestrial beings.

Technology and methodology of the whale conversation

At the core of Whale-SETI is advanced technology. Researchers use sophisticated hydrophones and AI algorithms to record and analyze whale sounds.

The AI, trained on vast datasets of whale calls and human languages, seeks patterns and structures that could indicate language-like characteristics.

This method not only helps in deciphering the complexity of whale communication but also enhances our understanding of language development in intelligent species.

Discoveries and insights

Whale-SETI has already made significant discoveries. Researchers have identified certain repetitive patterns and variations in whale songs that suggest a level of intentional communication.

These patterns vary among different whale species, indicating distinct ‘dialects’ or ‘languages.’

This finding challenges our understanding of non-human intelligence and communication, opening new avenues in both marine biology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Whale conversation implications for the future

The implications of Whale-SETI are vast. It not only enriches our understanding of marine life but also provides insights into the evolution of communication and intelligence.

By studying the complexities of whale communication, scientists hope to develop better strategies for marine conservation.

Additionally, the project offers a unique perspective in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, suggesting that understanding non-human communication on Earth could be key to recognizing and interpreting signals from other intelligent life forms in the universe.

In summary, Whale-SETI stands as a beacon of interdisciplinary research, merging marine biology with linguistics and astrobiology. Its approach to understanding whale communication opens up a new frontier in the study of intelligent life, both on Earth and beyond.

This project not only deepens our connection with the marine world but also expands the horizons of our search for intelligence in the cosmos.

More about humpback whales

Humpback whales, known scientifically as Megaptera novaeangliae, stand out due to their impressive size and distinctive physical features. These marine mammals can reach lengths of up to 60 feet and weigh as much as 40 tons.

Their long pectoral fins, which can span up to a third of their body length, and their knobbly head make them easily identifiable.

Habitat and migration

Humpback whales inhabit all major oceans, demonstrating a remarkable adaptability to different marine environments.

They undertake lengthy migrations, possibly the longest of any mammal, traveling up to 5,000 miles between their feeding grounds in polar waters and breeding grounds in tropical or subtropical seas.

This migratory behavior ensures their survival, linking nutrient-rich feeding areas with safe breeding locations.

Social behavior and communication

These whales exhibit complex social behaviors. They often travel in pods, especially during migration. Notably, humpback whales communicate through an array of vocalizations, known as whale songs.

These songs, intricate and melodious, play a crucial role in social interactions and are particularly prominent during the breeding season. As discussed in depth above, scientists are on the verge of deciphering their language.

Feeding patterns

Humpback whales primarily feed on krill and small fish. They employ unique feeding techniques, such as bubble net feeding, where a group of whales will create a circle of bubbles to trap their prey.

This cooperative hunting strategy highlights their intelligence and social coordination.

Conservation status

Once hunted extensively, humpback whales faced significant population declines. However, thanks to international conservation efforts and legal protections, their numbers have been gradually recovering.

Despite this positive trend, they still face threats from entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and the impacts of climate change on their habitats and food sources.

In summary, the story of the humpback whale serves as a reminder of both the fragility and resilience of marine life. Continued conservation efforts and research are vital to ensure the survival and health of these magnificent creatures, allowing future generations to witness their awe-inspiring presence in the world’s oceans.

More about the SETI Institute

As discussed earlier in this article, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute stands at the forefront of humanity’s quest to discover life beyond Earth. Founded in 1984, this private, non-profit organization dedicates itself to exploring, understanding, and explaining the origin, nature, and prevalence of life in the universe.

Through a multidisciplinary approach that combines astronomy, biology, and planetary science, the SETI Institute seeks to answer one of humanity’s most profound questions: Are we alone in the universe?

Mission and vision

At the heart of the SETI Institute’s mission lies the relentless pursuit of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence. By employing advanced technological systems and telescopes, the Institute listens for signals from distant galaxies, hoping to catch a whisper of life from the cosmos. Its vision extends beyond merely finding life; the Institute aims to inspire and educate the public about the significance of searching for life beyond our planet, fostering a sense of unity and curiosity among people of all ages.

Research and projects

The SETI Institute’s research spans several key areas, including the study of exoplanets, the conditions necessary for life, and the development of sophisticated algorithms and technologies to detect signs of life.

One of its most famous projects, the Allen Telescope Array (ATA), epitomizes the Institute’s innovative approach. This collection of radio telescopes in northern California scans the heavens for signals indicative of intelligent life, operating under the principle that an advanced civilization might communicate across the vast distances of space using radio waves.

Beyond the ATA, the Institute also engages in the study of microbial life within our solar system, investigating planets and moons that might harbor conditions favorable to life. Mars, Europa, and Enceladus are among the celestial bodies of interest, with research focusing on their climates, geology, and potential for water — a critical ingredient for life as we know it.

Education and outreach

Education and outreach form a crucial part of the SETI Institute’s mission. Through public talks, educational programs, and social media, the Institute engages with a global audience, sharing discoveries and fostering a sense of wonder about the universe. Its efforts aim not only to inform but also to inspire the next generation of scientists, encouraging young minds to explore the mysteries of the cosmos and consider careers in STEM fields.

Future of SETI

As technology advances, so too do the possibilities for discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. The SETI Institute continues to innovate, developing new strategies and instruments to scan the skies more effectively. With projects like the LaserSETI, which aims to detect optical signals from outer space, the Institute is expanding the scope of search methodologies. The future of SETI holds promise for groundbreaking discoveries that could reshape our understanding of our place in the universe.

In summary, the SETI Institute’s work encapsulates humanity’s boundless curiosity and relentless drive to explore the unknown. By searching for signs of life beyond Earth, the Institute not only seeks to answer a longstanding question but also to connect us with the cosmos in a profound way. Whether we find silence or a symphony of signals from other worlds, the journey of discovery promises to illuminate our understanding of life, intelligence, and our cosmic neighborhood.


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