Scientists are seeking the public's help to figure out what whales mean when they sing to one another.

The Whale Sound Project has posted recordings of pilot whales and killer whales online and is asking internet users to match similar sounds.

"We need help categorizing these calls," Peter Tyack, a researcher at St. Andrews University in Scotland, told CBC's As It Happens.

The researchers already know that the calls are used by groups of whales to maintain and re-establish contact with each other when they are diving for food.


Killer whales have distinct family dialects and use their calls to maintain and re-establish contact with other members of their group. (CBC)

Among killer whales, each family has its own distinct dialect. But researchers don't know the function of similar sounds made by pilot whales, Tyack said. That's one thing they hope to find out.

While computer programs are good at analyzing some characteristics of calls, the human ear is extremely good at teasing out subtle differences between calls, Tyack said. The researchers hope their internet project will give them a better idea of just how good humans are at interpreting whale songs.

"Having lots of people do it gives us a sense of how reliable their judgments are and how distinct the calls are," Tyack said.

On the first day of the website launch, internet users judged 20,000 sets of matching whale songs. The site is expected to remain online for many months.