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Humpback Whale Communication and the Search for Alien Intelligence

Humpback Whale Communication and the Search for Alien Intelligence


Laurance Doyle is using statistical tools to look for patterns in animal communication.

Screenshot of video showing a humpback whale

Long before the discovery of the first planet beyond our Solar System, SETI Institute research scientist Laurance Doyle began theorizing about the habitability of planets around other stars, clarifying the conditions needed for a planet to bear life. Relying on his expertise in signal processing, his research has looked for patterns in astronomical data, searching for extrasolar planets.

Doyle uses these same statistical tools to look for patterns in animal communication. Drawing on central concepts of information theory, he and colleagues from the University of California at Davis have precisely measured the complexity of the songs of humpback whales, comparing them with communication in other species—including humans. In the future, he plans to expand this innovative line of research, moving to the next level of understanding animal communication. Not content to understand how much an animal can communicate, he seeks to understand the meaning of the vocalizations of other species.

His current project, supported by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, has several goals:

  • Develop a comprehensive framework to understand friendship, love, devotion, and trust in non-human groups
  • Identify the qualities of expertise that are valued and valuable among non-human animals
  • Identify and investigate intelligences that act or are instantiated over very long distances or time periods
  • Explore collective behavior and group dynamics over long or short time and length scales that may be forms of group intelligence
  • Explaining to what extent behaviors we observe in other life forms are indicative of intelligences

A new video, “Humpback Whale Communication and the Search for Alien Intelligence”, explains the project. Says Doyle:

“Our project, funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, is to investigate the vocal and social behavior of humpback whales using quantifying measures such as the mathematics of information theory. One goal includes developing a kind-of intelligence filter for use in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Another goal includes an effort to measure empathy in humpback whales which have been known to save other marine mammals from, for example, orca pods. Finally we wish to understand the individual interaction of socializing and feeding humpback whales and for this study we will deploy a five-element hydrophone array in Southeast Alaska starting in the summer of 2019.”

Although there are only two scientists in the video, there are actually six members of the Team. They are Dr. Laurance R. Doyle, Dr. Fred Sharpe, Dr. Brenda McCowan, Dr. Michelle Fournet, Dr. Jim Crutchfield, and Dr. Frans de Waal.


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