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Jul 26, 2021

Humpback Whale Songs & the Search for Alien Intelligence with Dr. Laurance Doyle and Dr. Fred Sharpe (video)

Research into animal communication challenges ideas of intelligence and informs the search for life in the universe.

By Templeton Staff

Astronomer Dr. Laurance Doyle, Research Scientist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, and Dr. Fred Sharpe, Principal Investigator at the Alaska Whale Foundation believe that decoding communications of the humpback whale may help us interpret signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. “It’s very likely that when we finally do make a detection of interstellar intelligence, it’s going to be very different from what we know,” says Sharpe.

Humpback whales use hundreds of complex signals for herding, mating, and hunting. They form complex bonds, based on ability, with each other outside of direct relations. These ties can last a lifetime. Sharpe muses, “You can call these economic bonds, but when you watch these whales, they sure seem like friendships.”

Sound travels much faster and further through water than air. Because of the acoustic nature of the sea, Humpback whales have had the ability to communicate over vast areas, even globally for millions of years. These wide-ranging broadcasts that can travel for days, draw a direct correlation to the work being done at SETI. “We could miss a signal (from space) if it was structured in such a way that we would have analyzed it as a human language instead of as a non-human communication system,” according to Doyle.

The hope is that by studying these great animals, and their sounds that are packaged for long-distance communication transfer, we may be able to catch similar non-human broadcasts from distant planets.

Highlights from this installment of our award-winning “Stories of Impact” video series:

  • The SETI Institute has created an intelligence filter that listens to the stars and determines, not only whether a signal was created by distant technology, but if possible, directly by other non-human beings.
  • Information Theory was developed to measure the amount of information being sent through telephone lines. The math from this theory is being applied to animals to make determinations about information that they pass through sound bits. Laurance Doyle went looking for conditional probabilities between signals of the humpback whales and found, “dependencies that we would call in human language, syntax.” It was a real breakthrough.
  • The grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation is allowing the team to use information theory to understand the rules of the humpback “language” and perhaps, one day, to discover meaning. Eventually, the hope is to return broadcast to the whales and establish two-way communication in the ocean and beyond.

This video is a Jackson Wild Media Awards™ 2019 Finalist, in the category of "Best Animal Behavior Film - Short Form."

Discover the podcast version of this interview.

Learn more about TWCF-funded research projects related to this episode: here and here

Read the transcript from the full interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay featuring: Dr. Laurance Doyle, an astrophysicist and research scientist at Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute; Dr. Fred Sharpe, an expert in humpback whales and the Principal Investigator with the Alaska Whale Foundation.

Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” videos by journalist and senior media executive Richard Sergay feature human stories and critical perspectives on breakthroughs about the universe’s big questions. The inspiring narratives and observations in these award-winning videos portray the individual and societal impacts of the projects that bring to life TWCF-supported research.