MELBOURNE, Australia – If they’re hungry, they’ll let you know by walking up to you and looking pleadingly at you and the container of food.
If that doesn’t work, they’ll sniff and paw your leg.
No, we are 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 such behavior led to a surprising discovery: kangaroos can communicate with people in a similar way to dogs, horses and goats, although they have never been domesticated.
Kangaroos are the first in the wild to display behavior that is more common in domesticated species and transmit help from a human, the researchers said. Previously, researchers had assumed that this type of inter-species communication only existed in animals that evolved alongside humans.
The study suggests that Australian marsupials have higher levels of intelligence than expected.
The researchers hoped the results would lead people – especially Australians – to treat kangaroos with greater care. Although featured on the country’s coat of arms and viewed as a national treasure, they are also perceived as disruptive and weeded out annually for their overabundance.
According to official estimates, there were almost 50 million kangaroos across Australia in 2017, twice as many as humans. Farmers complain that kangaroos are eating pastures intended for farm animals, while researchers fear that they pose a threat to endangered wildlife by destroying habitats and eating reptiles.
“There is a section of the population who think they are harmful and stupid and want to shoot them,” said Alan McElligott, the newspaper’s lead author. “I think when the general public understands an animal’s cognitive abilities better, it’s easier to sell the idea that we should treat them with the best possible care.”
The researchers trained and tested 11 kangaroos from Australian zoos over eight days to get food out of a box. Then they locked the box and made it impossible for them to access the food without help.
At first, the kangaroos sniffed and scratched the box. But when they realized they couldn’t open it, they turned to Dr. McElligott who was in the enclosure with them.
“The kangaroos looked up at me and switched that look – they looked at the box, back at me, back at the box, back at me,” said Dr. McElligott who previously worked at the University of Roehampton and is now an Associate Professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
“Some of the kangaroos came up to me and sniffed my knee and scratched my knee,” he added. “If it were a dog, you’d call it paws.”
Ten of the eleven kangaroos involved in the study saw Dr. Actively at McElligott, and nine took turns looking at him and the box of food.
“They really tried to purposely communicate their desire to get him to get the food out of the box,” said Alexandra Green, an animal behavior and welfare researcher at the University of Sydney, the newspaper’s co-author.
Dr. Green says that she believes the kangaroo’s behavior is a modification of how they communicate with one another in the wild.
“They are a social species and would use these clues among themselves,” she said. “In a trapped environment where people are present, they can likely adapt this ability to communicate with people.”
The kangaroos used in the study, published on Wednesday in Biology Letters, an expert-reviewed scientific journal from the Royal Society, weren’t entirely wild as it would have been dangerous for the researchers. They had grown up in zoos and were familiar with people, but were still considered non-domesticated.
Dr. McElligott said that in a similar study with wolves, another non-domesticated animal, the wolves simply attacked the food boxes with their teeth instead of trying to ask people for help.