Novel Ways to Non-invasively Visualize/Characterize/Decipher the Sonic Communication of Marine Mammals, Particularly Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus), via Compact, Low-noise, High-resolution Underwater Devices

April 2019

Sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus, possess the largest animal brain. We share the planet with these majestic creatures, who also live in family units and have complex vocal language, yet they remain largely mysterious. What is unfortunate is that their spermaceti oil, part of their echolocation apparatus, has received the most human attention. This oil fueled a massive whaling industry in the early 20th century which almost resulted in sperm whales being hunted to extinction. This exploratory seminar aims to bring together a vast and diverse array of human brains to explore ways in which advanced technology can bring us closer to sperm whales and provide deeper knowledge of their communication and behaviors. Sperm whales carry the largest and one of the most complicated biological sound generators in the animal kingdom. They produce sharp broadband pulses known as “clicks” at regular repetition rates of 1-2 seconds and with frequency reaching 30 kHz. Clicks are emitted at various repetition rates and patterns to produce sounds such as slow clicks, clangs, creaks, chirrups, and codas. The sounds emitted by sperm whales have been studied since first being identified in the 1950s, yet a deep understanding of their sonic language remains to be deciphered. By convening leading and creative engineers, robotocists sound experts, mathematicians, free-divers, underwater technologists and algorithm decoders, we hope to design small “quiet” devices that can be utilized by free-divers and autonomous underwater vehicles to optically and sonically record whale sounds in a way that can help us learn their complicated language. 

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