Encounter with humpback whales reveals potential for nonhuman intelligence communication

An Alaska Whale Foundation, University of California Davis, and SETI Institute team of scientists had a near contact with an aquatic, non-human intelligence. Researching humpback whale communication networks is part of the Whale-SETI team's endeavor to create intelligence filters for the hunt for alien intelligence.

The team's boat was approached by Twain, a humpback whale, which responded to a recorded "contact" call blasted into the ocean via an underwater speaker. Twain gave a conversational answer to the whale's "greeting signal." Twain matched the interval fluctuations between each signal and answered to each replayed call over the 20-minute interaction.

In a recent edition of the journal PeerJ, an account of the encounter is published under the title "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 stated, "We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback 'language.'"

According to co-author Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation, "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."

"An key premise of the hunt for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in make contact and will thus target human receivers due to existing technological constraints. The behavior of humpback whales unquestionably supports this significant premise, according to co-author of the article Dr. Laurance Doyle of the SETI Institute.

The Whale-SETI team is researching intelligent, terrestrial, non-human communication systems in order to create filters to apply to any signals received from extraterrestrials, much like they study Antarctica as a stand-in for Mars. We will use information theory mathematics to measure communicative complexity (e.g., rule structure encoded in a received message).

Dr. Josie Hubbard, Lisa Walker, and Jodi Frediani are other team members and co-authors of the research. Their areas of expertise include animal intelligences, humpback whale song analysis, and humpback whale behavior and photography, in that order. The team's second research on humpback whales' non-audio communicating behavior—bubble rings created with or maybe for humans—will be published soon.