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Public science project aims to understand whales

Researchers at Oxford use crowd-sourcing to help understand the language of whales
Joe Iles on Thursday 26th April 2012
Photograph: Tony Hisgett

Whale.FM, a citizen science project linked with Oxford University, is underway in an attempt to help scientists better understand the noises whales make.

Research so far has been hindered by the huge range of sounds that whales use to communicate and this is where the masses play their part, by visiting the website, Whale.FM, to take part in the project.

Robert Simpson, a researcher at Oxford and an important part of Whale.FM, explained that, “When you visit the site, you are presented with a sound clip of a recording of a whale. The idea is to match the big sound that you see/hear with one of the smaller ones underneath.

“All the pairings go into a database and we use that to find the best pairs of sounds and build up our understanding of what the whales are saying to each other. Basically: we need help decoding the language of whales.”

Since its launch in November of last year, more than 100,000 people have visited the site, creating almost 150,000 pairs.

Although there have been doubts cast on the efficiency of using the public as opposed to professional scientists, Dr Simpson told the Cherwell, “Efficiency may not be the way to think of it. In a broad sense, we are nowhere near as efficient, in that we require more people to take part to get the same results. But there is a term called Cognitive Surplus, coined by Clay Shirky, that describes all the spare brain power out in the world that is being used to watch TV or play on Facebook or ride on a bus looking out of the window. Whale.FM is trying to tap into that effort and make use of it for science. In that sense Whale.FM is very efficient!”

But citizen science is not just helpful for those with a burning desire to communicate with large aquatic animals. Dr Simpson commented that, “As we head into ever-larger data in science in general, citizen science may prove to be a very useful tool that allows us to put a human eye on much of what we look at”.

Students have reacted positively to the project with first year biologist at St. Anne’s Anna Blaylock commenting, “There really are loads of sounds that whales make, and this seems to me to be a good way to try and find out more about them”. Others, however, were more sceptical about the usefulness of the research, with lawyer John Huxley wondering if they were communicating, “Whale ideas that humans just can’t understand”.

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