Using Suction Cups Inspired by Fish to Listen in on Whale Conversations

By Leah Burrows.

In their ambitious goal to understand and ultimately communicate with sperm whales, research scientists from Project CETI have enlisted the help of unlikely collaborators — clingfish.

Project CETI, launched in 2020 by a team of interdisciplinary scientists, aims to listen to, contextualize, and translate the communication of sperm whales, the species with the largest brains on the planet. Key to that goal is the development of non-invasive soft devices that attach to the whales and record their vocalizations and other data. This effort is being led by Robert Wood, Harry Lewis and Marlyn McGrath Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Robotics Team Lead at Project CETI, as well as a National Geographic Explorer.

Wood and his team are working to develop tags that can attach and detach from whales without causing any damage to the skin, and withstand speeds up to 30 miles per hour, depths up to 1,000 meters and temperatures as low as a few degrees Celsius.

“In developing these tags, we need a way to adhere to whales that is gentle, stable, and reversible,” said Alyssa Hernandez, a postdoctoral fellow in Wood’s Microbotics Lab. “We don’t want to use spears, spines, hooks or anything that could harm the whale.

Adhesives also wouldn’t work because we need to be able to detach the tag to retrieve the data. Suction cups are gentle on the skin and eventually detach themselves but only tend to stay on for a few hours.”

Researchers on Project CETI need their listening devices to record at least a day or two of whale-to-whale conversations to understand the context of their vocalizations.

Which brings us back to clingfish.