MELBOURNE, Australia – When they are hungry, they will let you know by coming to you and looking at you begging you and the food container.
If that doesn’t work, they’ll sniff you and kick you.
No, we’re not talking about dogs. We’re talking about kangaroos.
Researchers at the University of Roehampton in the UK and the University of Sydney in Australia say that such behavior has led them to an amazing discovery: kangaroos can communicate with humans in a similar way to dogs, horses and goats, despite the fact that they were never domesticated.
Kangaroos are the first wild animal to exhibit more frequently observed behavior in domesticated species, communicating requests for help from a human, the researchers said. To date, researchers have hypothesized that this type of interspecies communication existed only in animals that evolved with humans.
The study suggests a higher level of intelligence in Australian marsupials than previously thought.
The researchers said they hoped the results would persuade people – especially Australians – to treat kangaroos more carefully. Although they are on the country’s coat of arms and are considered a national treasure, they are also seen as a nuisance and are sacrificed annually because of their overabundance.
In 2017, there were almost 50 million kangaroos across Australia, double the human population, according to official estimates. Farmers complain that kangaroos eat pasture for animals, while researchers worry that it poses a threat to endangered wildlife, destroying habitat and eating reptiles.
“There is a section of the population that thinks they are harmful and dumb and wants to shoot them,” said Alan McElligott, lead author. “I think if the general public has a better understanding of an animal’s cognitive abilities, it’s easier to sell the idea that we should treat them with the best possible care.”
Researchers prepared and tested 11 kangaroos in Australian zoos last year in eight days to take food out of a box. Then they locked the box, making it impossible for them to access food without help.
Initially, the kangaroos sniffed and scratched the box. But once they realized they couldn’t open it, they turned their attention to Dr. McElligott, who was inside with them.
“The kangaroos looked at me and did this kind of alternating look – looking at the box, back at me, back at the box, back at me,” said Dr. McElligott, who previously worked at the University of Roehampton is now an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“A few kangaroos approached me and started sniffing my knee and scratching my knee,” he added. If it were a dog, you would call it a “buzz”.
Ten of the 11 kangaroos involved in the study actively looked at Dr. McElligott, and nine alternated between looking at him and the box containing the food.
“They really tried to intentionally communicate their desire to get him out of the box,” said Alexandra Green, a researcher in animal behavior and welfare at the University of Sydney, who co-authored the paper.
Dr. Green says he believes the kangaroo’s behavior is a change in the way they communicate with each other in the wild.
“They are a social species and would use these clues with each other,” she said. “In a captive setting, where there are people present, they are probably able to adapt this ability to communicate with people.”
The kangaroos used in the study – which was published Wednesday in Biology Letters, a scientific journal published by the Royal Society – were not entirely wild, as this would have been dangerous for researchers. They had been raised in zoos and were familiar with humans, but were still considered untamed.
Dr. McElligott said that in a similar study with wolves, another domesticated animal, wolves simply attacked food boxes with their teeth instead of making any attempt to ask people for help.