The Language of Whales
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The Language of Whales

2020, Nature  -   1 Comment
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Orcas - also called killer whales - are majestic members of the dolphin family and are some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. With the second-largest brain size of any marine mammal and their impressive behavioral, social, language, and echolocation abilities, they are highly intelligent and complex mammals, sitting on top of the marine life food chain.

Orcas are also somewhat of a Holy Grail to marine biologists and those studying animal linguistics. Orcas stay within family groups called pods, which collectively form clans. Each orca clan "speak" different languages. While orcas pods within one clan all speak the same language, each pod has a distinct dialect. And it is because of this that scientists have longed to uncover the secrets behind how orcas communicate. Now, artificial intelligence might have the answer.

Orcas are found worldwide, but there is a particular group that visits the waters between Alaska and Vancouver every summer, affectionately called the "Northern Residents." What makes them unique is that they are monitored by a team of German and Canadian behavioral biologists and IT experts using AI to decipher their language. There are about 300 Northern Resident Orcas split into 32 pods. Besides the unique communication skills, each pod has distinctive relationship with the hunting grounds, and even certain behaviors passed down from generation to generation.

Researchers "listen" to the orcas using high tech underwater microphones and monitor them as well from the surface using cameras and drones. They observe an orca's particular behavior or action as they are "speaking" and note it down. Orcas communicate through a series of different vocalizations called "calls," which can be heard from miles away. Over the last few decades, marine scientists have recorded thousands of calls from these orca pods. Today, AI has been brought into the mix.

AI has long been used to recognize patterns in human language. The researchers are now using the same technology to try to decipher what the orcas are saying. AI machines can now analyze these recordings allowing them to identify recurring patterns and behaviors in the orcas' calls.

The end goal is to create a kind of dictionary of the orcas' language. At the moment, scientists have no way of knowing what orcas are saying to each other. But they now have tools to compare calls in a more detailed and systematic way than previously possible. And as more recordings of whale calls are shared and made available for training the deep-learning AI machines, the faster they will recognize the subtleties in communication patterns.

This is a landmark study with potentially revolutionary implications. Humans have long faced limitations when it comes to an understanding of what animals might be talking about. But with the help of AI, a new era of research might allow us to decipher the secrets behind their communication.

Directed by: Volker Barth

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2 years ago

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