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Kangaroos Communicate With Humans Like Dogs in Experiments

The study suggests people may have previously underestimated the communication abilities of other non-domesticated species

Two sequential photos showing a kangaroo alternating its gaze between a box full of food it can't open and a human. (Alexandra Green, location Australian Reptile Park)
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Kangaroos might be capable of intentionally communicating with humans, suggesting the bounding marsupials might be more intelligent than previously thought, reports Matilda Boseley for the Guardian.

The findings, published this week in the journal the Biology Letters, also challenge the notion that communication with humans is restricted to domesticated animals such as dogs, cats, horses or goats and that the capability is a product of the domestication process itself. And, to be clear, despite their ubiquity across Australia, kangaroos have never been domesticated.

The study was based on experiments involving 11 captive, but not domesticated, kangaroos, reports Paulina Duran of Reuters. When ten of the 11 the kangaroos were presented with an “unsolvable problem,” a box filled with food that they couldn’t open, the animals began to gaze intently at the researchers when their efforts to get the box open failed. Nine kangaroos even looked back and forth between the researcher and the box, as if to say, “Can you give me a hand with this?”

“We interpreted this as a deliberate form of communication, a request for help,” Alan McElligott, an animal behavior researcher at City University of Hong Kong and first author of the study, tells Reuters. “Wild species are not really expected to behave as those subjects were, and that’s why it is surprising.”

McElligott’s research builds on studies conducted with horses, dogs and goats that elicited similar results.

“They’d look straight up at my face, like a dog or a goat would do, and back at the box, and some even came up and scratched my knee like a dog pawing [for attention],” McElligott tells Christa Leste-Lasserre of New Scientist.

What further surprised McElligott is that he and his co-authors saw the same behavior across several kangaroo species, even ones such as eastern grey and red kangaroos with reputations for being skittish. “I was really shocked,” McElligott tells New Scientist in reference to these two species. “I didn’t even think we would get through the training protocol with them.”

Previously, many researchers thought that the ability to communicate with humans was a trait bred into certain animals during domestication, Alexandra Green, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Sydney and co-author of the research, tells the Guardian. Green says her team’s research instead suggests such behavior can be learned under the right conditions.

Though the experiments were limited to just 11 kangaroos, McElligott and Green say the research is a strong signal that the abilities of non-domesticated animals to learn to communicate with humans may have been underestimated.

Green also says she hopes the findings will engender some kind feelings towards the study’s subjects.

“Kangaroos are iconic Australian endemic fauna, adored by many worldwide but also considered as a pest,” says Green in a statement. “We hope that this research draws attention to the cognitive abilities of kangaroos and helps foster more positive attitudes towards them.”

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