Study Shows Wild Kangaroos Can Intentionally Communicate With Humans

Animals that have never been domesticated, such as kangaroos, can intentionally communicate with humans, says a new study.

Challenging the idea that such behavior is restricted to domesticated animals like dogs, horses, and goats, the research was done by the University of Roehampton and the University of Sydney.

Involving kangaroos—marsupials that were never domesticated—at three locations across Australia, the findings revealed that these animals gazed at a human when trying to access food which had been put in a closed box.

The kangaroos used these long looks to communicate with the person instead of attempting to open the box themselves—a behavior that is usually expected for domesticated animals.

10 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, which is seen as a heightened form of communication.

The science of communication

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 behaviors for interacting with humans.

Dr Alan McElligott said in a statement: “Through this study, we were able to see that communication between animals can be learnt and that the behavior of gazing at humans to access food is not related to domestication. Indeed, kangaroos showed a very similar pattern of behavior 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 of the study, published in Biology Letters: “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.”