It may sound a bit “Dr. Doolittle,” but it turns out kangaroos can communicate with humans.
Researchers found that kangaroos “intentionally” communicated with humans – a behavior that was previously thought to be reserved for domesticated animals, like dogs, horses or goats.
Experts from London’s University of Roehampton and the University of Sydney set up a task, known as “the unsolvable problem task,” where they presented kangaroos with food trapped inside a plastic container.
After trying, and failing, to open the boxes, the kangaroos turned their gaze on a nearby human – and sometimes even nudged or scratched them to ask for help, researchers said.
It’s all in the eyes
“Their gaze was pretty intense,” co-author Alexandra Green, a post-doctoral researcher in the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, said in a statement.
“We’ve previously thought only domesticated animals try to ask for help with a problem. But kangaroos do it too. If they can’t open the box, they look at the human and back to the container. Some of them used their nose to nudge the human and some approached the human and started scratching at him asking for assistance.”
Based on these new findings, the team believe kangaroos – considered social animals, like dogs and goats – may be able to adapt their behavior to interact with humans.
“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,” lead author Alan McElligott said in a statement.
“Indeed, kangaroos showed a very similar pattern of behaviour we have seen in dogs, horses and even goats when put to the same test,” McElligott, who was previously associated with the University of Roehampton and is now an associate professor in animal behavior and welfare at City University of Hong Kong, added.
Ten out of 11 kangaroos tested in the study “actively” looked at the person who had placed the food in the plastic container to get it. Nine of the 11 animals engaged in a “heightened form of communication,” researchers said, alternating their gaze between the container and the person present.
The study involved captive animals from a number of zoos in Australia. The animals, although familiar with humans, were considered non-domesticated.
“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,” McElligott said.
“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,” he added.
The research was published in the journal Biology Letters on Wednesday.