​Humpback Whales: Quantifying and Interacting with Their Global Intelligence
TWCF Number
Project Duration
July 25 / 2018
- July 24 / 2021
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded
Grant DOI*

* A Grant DOI (digital object identifier) is a unique, open, global, persistent and machine-actionable identifier for a grant.

Laurance R. Doyle
Institution The SETI Institute

The study of animal communication challenges our ideas of intelligence and informs our search for life in the universe. Among the most fascinating of vocalizations are the songs and sounds of humpback whales, the subject of Laurance Doyle’s project. By studying these loquacious creatures, he aims to uncover the vast wellsprings of communications that exist throughout planet Earth—and beyond.

Whales are ancestrally remote to humans and resumed life in the oceans over 60 million years ago. Marine environments allow for efficient sound travel, giving these low-frequency, vocal specialists a kind of “global aquatic internet.” Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are of special interest because of their large auditory cortex, upside-down pyramidal cells, and clusters of spindle neurons.

The humpback’s mental attributes also underwrite a superlative acoustic prowess. This includes their lengthy, rhyming, and ever-evolving songs. Their vocal repertoire also includes a panoply of less-studied social sounds, including at least 40 unique social calls. A subclass of these calls show stability (across generations and ocean basins), a prerequisite for the evolution of complex communication. These signals represent a unique opportunity to characterize and interact with a magnificent non-human intelligence.

Despite the humpback’s loquaciousness, its gregarious nature has made it difficult to isolate the vocal stream of individuals for syntactical analysis. To isolate the acoustic broadcasts of individuals, this study will develop a rigorous experimental framework utilizing a high-resolution hydrophone array. The behavioral context (meaning) of these calls will be characterized by visual monitoring, observing the humpback’s response to playbacks.

By applying information theory to signals derived from the array, and from the parsing of long-term datasets, we can deepen our understanding of group dynamics and information transfer in baleen whales, and other taxa (both marine and terrestrial).

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