avatar whale
It might sound like something from Avatar 2 (pictured), but scientists say that this research could pave the way for future communications with aliens
It might sound like a scene out of Avatar 2.

But scientists claim it's now possible to have a conversation with a whale, following a 20-minute chat with a humpback whale in Southeast Alaska.

A 38-year-old whale named Twain 'spoke' with the researchers from the SETI Institute and UC Davis by responding to a pre-recorded 'contact call'.

This marks the first communication between humans and whales in their own language, according to the team.

Looking ahead, the researchers say the conversation could pave the way for interactions with aliens in the future.

Twain whale
Researchers say they have had a 20-minute conversation with 'Twain' (pictured), a humpback whale in Southeast Alaska
Humpback whales: The singers of the sea

Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae

Diet: Omnivore

Size: 48 to 62.5 feet

Weight: 40 tons
  • Humpback whales are found across every ocean in the world.
  • Their name comes from the small hump on their dorsal fins.
  • They are known for their amazing songs which they use to communicate and attract mates.
In the study, researchers from SETI studied how whales communicate in the hopes of developing 'intelligence filters' as part of the search for alien life.

The scientists broadcast a type of greeting call called a 'whup/throp' through underwater speakers.

When the call was played through the water, Twain approached the boat and responded with a greeting call of her own.

Importantly, the scientists found that Twain was changing the frequency of her own calls in response to the researchers' broadcast.

According to lead author, Dr Brenda McCowan of UC Davis, this mirroring behaviour shows that the whale was engaging in a type of interactive conversation with the recorded call.

Dr McCowan said: 'We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback "language".'

In their research paper, Dr Brenda and her co-authors suggest that Twain was motivated to reply by 'excitement and possibly the onset of agitation'.

However, they also point out that the kind of 'behavioural synchrony' exhibited by the whale is associated with bonding and group cohesion.

This, according to the authors, suggests that Twain was actively engaged in a communicative exchange.

Dr Brenda McCowan (left) and Dr Fred Sharpe
Dr Brenda McCowan (left) and Dr Fred Sharpe played a pre-recorded greeting call into the water as Twain came near their research vessel
Humpback whale
Humpback whales' high intelligence and sophisticated communication systems make them a good proxy for communicating with alien life
The researchers' ultimate goal is not to speak with whales, but with even stranger forms of life.

Just as another scientist might look at Antarctica as a proxy for Mars or other alien environments, SETI researchers look on Earth to find stand-ins for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

In the absence of any aliens, the researchers hope to use whales to develop strategies for non-human communication.

Humpback whales make such a good alien proxy because of their extremely high intelligence and powers of communication.

Twain approached
This diagram shows how Twain approached the research vessel and circled while responding to the researchers' calls
Their huge brains have large regions for processing auditory information and the watery environment lets them broadcast signals over vast distances.

Dr Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation says: 'Humpback whales are extremely intelligent, have complex social systems, make tools - nets out of bubbles to catch fish - and communicate extensively with both songs and social calls.'

This means that by learning how to find information within the calls of whales, scientists might one day be able to make sense of communications from aliens.

Dr Laurence Doyle of the SETI Institute says: 'Because of current limitations on technology, an important assumption of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is that extraterrestrials will be interested in making contact and so target human receivers.'

Seti institute
The SETI Institute uses radar arrays like the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico to try and search for communications from alien life
The SETI Institute uses radar arrays like the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico to try and search for communications from alien life

He adds that 'this important assumption is certainly supported by the behavior of humpback whales.'

Previously, SETI has attempted to find extra-terrestrial life by listening in to radio signals arriving on Earth.

The theory is that a highly advanced alien civilization might be interested in communicating with other planets and so would beam out information in high-energy pulses.

Most recently this has centred on a theory that there may be a pulsating beacon near the centre of the Milky Way broadcasting information from aliens.

However, since we have no way of knowing how aliens might communicate, SETI focuses on developing tools to scan for signals of intelligence within the constant background noise of space.

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