Scientists Searching For Extraterrestrial Life Have First “Contact Call” – With A Whale

Scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) say that they have had their first ever “contact call” – with a whale.

SETI may seem like an unlikely organization to concern themselves with whale song, given that their brief is to search for proof of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The thing that interests SETI is that whales can serve as a proxy for contacting such alien intelligences. Studying the calls used by humpback whales, the team hoped to learn about how much information their vocalizations can convey, measure the complexity of their “language”, and perhaps discover rules of communication that could be applied to alien contact.

“As astrobiology uses Antarctica as a proxy for Mars, so we are using non-human but complex communication systems as a proxy for an ETI signal if and when one may be received,” SETI explains of the project on their website. “Humpback whales grew up on the same planet, and around the same star, as humans did, but their communication systems are certainly not human! Thus we can deprovincialize our thinking and approach to the detection of intelligent life in space.”

Using the knowledge gained from this project, the team attempted to make conversation with humpback whales in research published in November 2023, playing calls to them in the hope of getting a response. Though most whales ignored the calls, one humpback whale named Twain approached the team’s boat and circled it, while seemingly responding to the call with vocalizations of its own.

“We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback ‘language’,” Dr Brenda McCowan of the University of California, Davis said in a statement at the time. 


So, what was the “conversation” about? We don’t really know. In fact, we don’t really know what the vocalizations the researchers sent out meant, let alone Twain’s response. But some sort of attempted communication took place, with the whale appearing to respond based on its vocalizations and behavior.

“It was a contact call,” animal behaviorist Dr Josie Hubbard told the New York Post. “It’s how the whales call to each other; they make whoops and thrups, and we believe that’s how they determine each other’s locations. And here we were having a unique encounter with Twain. She gave a resounding response.”

The team hopes that attempting to communicate with whales could teach us something about communication with intelligent aliens, and from this interaction, we may have learned a little about the willingness of other species to communicate back, and what kind of communication the animals may prefer. In this case, Twain appeared more interested at the beginning of the interaction. The calls played to the group of whales had been recorded the previous day, and included Twain herself.

“We can only speculate that this initial strong response to our whup call exemplar was due to either a mirroring effect of playing back Twain’s own call to herself or increased interest due to the fact that the call was identifiable to one of her group members,” the team wrote in their study. “Although perhaps unlikely, the former would suggest a highly evolved cognitive capacity of self-recognition in humpback whales that could be further explored using a type of interactive adaptive design.”

“If the latter, the initial and then eventual waning of engagement found across the playback exchange provides us with deeper insights into how we can improve future playback designs for unraveling vocal structure and meaning in animal communication.”

The team varied the response time to the whale, and found that the animal matched its response time. Eventually, however, Twain grew bored.

“While our results certainly indicate the importance of dynamical control over the temporal element in a playback, a major limitation in our playback study was the inability to modify anything other than the timing of the playback,” the team added. “This limitation may have either frustrated or disinterested the whale over the course of the three phases as indicated by her surface behavior.”

Fingers crossed aliens don’t get similarly bored if we eventually do make contact.

The study is published in PeerJ.

Leave a Comment