What’s up Skip? Kangaroos really can ‘talk’ to us

Kangaroos can intentionally communicate with humans, research reveals

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Credit: Dr Alexandra Green

Animals that have never been domesticated, such as kangaroos, can intentionally communicate with humans, challenging the notion that this behaviour is usually restricted to domesticated animals like dogs, horses or goats, a first of its kind study from the University of Roehampton and the University of Sydney has found.

The research which involved kangaroos, marsupials that were never domesticated, at three locations across Australia*, revealed that kangaroos gazed at a human when trying to access food which had been put in a closed box. The kangaroos used gazes to communicate with the human instead of attempting to open the box themselves, a behaviour that is usually expected for domesticated animals.

Ten out of 11 kangaroos tested actively looked at the person who had put the food in a box to get it (this type of experiment is known as “the unsolvable problem task”). Nine of the 11 kangaroos additionally showed gaze alternations between the box and the person present, a heightened form of communication where they look between the box and human.

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. Lead author Dr Alan McElligott, University of Roehampton (now based at City University of Hong Kong), previously led a study which found goats can understand human cues, including pointing, to gather information about their environment. Like dogs and goats, kangaroos are social animals and Dr McElligott’s new research suggests they may be able to adapt their usual social behaviours for interacting with humans.

Dr Alan McElligott said: “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. 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. 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.”

Dr Alexandra Green, School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, said: “Kangaroos are iconic Australian endemic fauna, adored by many worldwide but also considered as a pest. 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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A copy of the full study is available on https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2020.0607

High resolution images and video can be downloaded here.

*The study involved kangaroos at three locations in Australia: Australian Reptile Park, Wildlife Sydney Zoo and Kangaroo Protection Co-Operative. The research was funded by a grant from the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB).

Notes to editors

University of Roehampton

The University of Roehampton, London, is an established international higher-education institution providing a high-quality learning and research experience with the aim of developing personal growth and driving social change.

The University has a proud and distinguished history dating back to the 1840s and it was one of the first institutions in the UK to admit women to its colleges of higher education. This tradition of commitment to equality continues to be part of the ethos of the University, which has one of the most diverse and thriving communities of students in the UK; its 9,000 student body includes international students from over 146 countries.

Today the University is renowned for its broad range of expertise across teacher training, business, social sciences, the arts and humanities, as well as human and life sciences, with world leading and internationally recognised research in these fields.

http://www.roehampton.ac.uk

University of Sydney

The University of Sydney was founded in 1850 on the principle of providing people from all backgrounds with the opportunity to realise their potential to make a positive impact in the world through education. We’re a world-renowned teaching and research institution – our research combines the expertise and talents of scholars from many disciplines. In creating Australia’s first university, our founders recognised the power of education to change society. We hold that belief just as strongly today.

sydney.edu.au

City University of Hong Kong

City University of Hong Kong (CityU) is a dynamic university established in 1994 and uniquely located in the heart of Hong Kong, Asia’s world city. Our goals are to pursue high levels of excellence, promote innovation and nurture creativity with the aim to improve people’s lives. In a city where East meets West, our vision is to become globally recognised for professional education. We are named the Most International University in the world by Times Higher Education for 2020.

Founded in 2014, the Jockey Club College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences at CityU comprises the Department of Biomedical Sciences, the Department of Infectious Diseases and Public Health, the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences and the Department of Neuroscience. Guided by One Health core principles, the College is helping CityU to pioneer excellence in veterinary education and research in Hong Kong, Asia and the world, spotlighting public health, food safety, animal welfare and aquatic animal health for the well-being of society.

https://www.cityu.edu.hk/

Media Contact
P.K. Lee
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Related Journal Article

http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2020.0607

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