Speaking with Skippy: Kangaroos can communicate with humans
Despite never being domesticated, kangaroos are able to communicate using their gaze – something previously assumed to be restricted to animals like dogs, horses or goats.
Kangaroos can communicate with humans despite never being domesticated, according to a new study.
The research looked at kangaroos at three locations across Australia: Australian Reptile Park, Wildlife Sydney Zoo and Kangaroo Protection Co-Operative. Scientists focused on captive kangaroos, which are known to be docile and interactive with people, to see if they would attempt to communicate with a human.
For the study, they placed food in a plastic container in front of the animal – an experiment known as 'the unsolvable problem task'. The type of food reward varied depending on the location, and was either one piece of sweet potato or carrot, a few dried corn kernels or macropod grass pellets.
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After attempting and failing to open the box, the kangaroos actively looked at the person who had put the food down.
This use of gazing as communication is a behaviour that is usually expected for domesticated animals, the scientists say.
“Through this study, we were able to see that communication between animals can be learnt and that the behaviour of gazing at humans to access food is not related to domestication,” said lead author Dr Alan McElligott, who conducted the study while at his previous position with the University of Roehampton.
“Indeed, kangaroos showed a very similar pattern of behaviour we have seen in dogs, horses and even goats when put to the same test.”
“Our research shows that the potential for referential intentional communication towards humans by animals has been underestimated which signals an exciting development in this area,” said McElligott.
“Kangaroos are the first marsupials to be studied in this manner and the positive results should lead to more cognitive research beyond the usual domestic species.”
According to the study published in Biology Letters, 10 out of the 11 kangaroos that were tested actively looked at the person who had put the food in a box to get it.
Of the 11 in the study, 9 kangaroos additionally showed a heightened form of communication where they looked between the box and human, to show them the 'unsolvable problem'.
After each 'unsolvable' test, all subjects were given their food reward.
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The research builds on previous work in the field which has looked at the communication of domesticated animals, such as dogs and goats, and whether intentional communication in animals is a result of domestication. McElligott previously led a study that found goats can understand human cues, including pointing, to gather information about their environment.
Like dogs and goats, kangaroos are social animals and the new research suggests that they may be able to adapt their usual social behaviours for interacting with humans.
“Kangaroos are iconic Australian endemic fauna, adored by many worldwide but also considered as a pest,” said co-author Dr Alexandra Green, from the University of Sydney.
“We hope that this research draws attention to the cognitive abilities of kangaroos and helps foster more positive attitudes towards them.”
Reader Q&A: What’s the inside of a kangaroo’s pouch like?Asked by: David Simpson, Bedgebury
Newborn joeys, also known as ‘jellybeans’, quickly scale a wall of fur to climb into the warmth and safety of their mothers’ cosy pouch. This fleshy pocket is stretchy and slightly sticky, and opens horizontally upwards to lessen the chance of the young falling out. The pouch is hairless inside and contains teats that produce milk of different types to feed joeys of different ages – a clever adaptation to enable offspring to be cared for at different stages of their development.
Every now and then, mothers have to clean their babies’ nursery to ensure it doesn’t become smelly and unhygienic. They do this by licking inside the pouch to remove dirt, poo and urine – a true labour of love.
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.