Citizen scientists can help study whale communications and pass along their observations through the Whale Song Project (aka Whale FM), a whale-song identification project that Scientific American launched in partnership with the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA). The Whale Song Project, available as part of the CSA’s suite of Zooniverse citizen-science projects, is designed specifically to assist in killer (Orca) and pilot whale research being conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research has likewise played a role in organizing the Whale Song Project, working with Woods Hole to coordinate data collection and preparing that data for use by citizen scientists.

Through the Whale Song Project, citizen scientists are presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas. After listening to the whale call—represented on screen as a spectrogram showing how the pitch of the sound changes with time—citizen scientists are asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project’s database. If a match is found, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound’s spectrogram and the results are stored.

The dataset generated by this project should help scientists to answer a number of questions regarding whale communication. For example, researchers want to know the size of the pilot whales’ call repertoire and whether repertoire size is a sign of intelligence. In addition, researchers seek to understand whether the two different types of pilot whales—long fin and short fin—have different call repertoires, and, if so, whether this signifies a distinct dialect.