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article imageEssential Science: Animal magic, kangaroos can 'talk' to us

By Tim Sandle     Jan 4, 2021 in Science
Challenging the notion that only certain domesticated animals can engage in communication with each other and, to and extent, with humans, new research finds that it is not only dogs and horses that have the ability to visually 'talk', kangaroos do too.
What is of interest with the new study is not only with kangaroos specifically, but with non-domesticated animals. This signals that it is not domestication alone that creates the verbal and physical cues required for communication between humans and other animals. The level of sophistication expressed by the kangaroo is at a level equivalent to cats, dogs, horses and goats. By communication, this refers to visual signs to signal intent.
This kangaroo was seen in the town of Nowra in New South Wales
This kangaroo was seen in the town of Nowra in New South Wales
The research centered on a joint project between the University of Roehampton and the University of Sydney and it involved extensive study of marsupials that have never been domesticated. The 12 western grey, 2 eastern grey, and 2 red kangaroos were studied at three different locations within Australia: Australian Reptile Park, Wildlife Sydney Zoo, and Kangaroo Protection Co-operative.
The research found that kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus) gazed at a human when trying to access food which had been placed into a closed box. This was used to signal to the human observer that the person should be the one to open the box. What is important about this observation is that the use of a gazes as a form of communication between a human and an animal is something typically only expected from domesticated animals.
The experiment was a type known in animal psychology as the 'unsolvable problem task'. This is where the animal first faces a problem that he or she can solve, such as an easy-to-open box with food inside. After some trials, the problem becomes unsolvable because the box is securely closed. What is of interest to animal psychologists is the response from the animal, especially when a human is close by and human has been the one observed putting the food into the box.
The behavior was also repeatable. Out of eleven kangaroos tested, ten showed the same trait if actively looking at the human who had placed the food into the box, and attempted to signal to the human to get the food for them. In addition, nine of the kangaroos displayed gaze alternations between the box and the person present. This is regarded as a heightened form of communication.
The reason why kangaroos can display this type of behavior is, according to lead researcher Dr Alan McElligott, down the marsupials being social animals. He notes how "kangaroos showed a very similar pattern of behaviour we have seen in dogs, horses and even goats when put to the same test." The inference of this is that animal-to-human communication is a product of the sociability of the animal (termed 'positive socialization') rather than the domestication of the animal.
Other findings
The finding also indicates that what is known as referential intentional communication (the animal towards a human) has probably been underestimated. Referential intentional communication is something that occurs when a signaller (in this case the kangaroo) attempts to direct the attention of a recipient (the human) to the desired goal through persistent pointing or showing. The success varies depending on the recipient's attentiveness and how clear the communication is.
Furthermore, understanding an animal's social cognitive abilities can be an important step towards improving human–animal relationships and animal welfare.
Next steps
With the recent study, kangaroos are the first marsupials to be studied. The researchers plan to extend the research further to assess other Marsupialia.
Photo of a koala (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Photo of a koala (CC BY-ND 2.0).
Research paper
The research has been published in the journal Biology Letters. The research paper is titled "Kangaroos display gazing and gaze alternations during an unsolvable problem task."
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal’s long-running Essential Science series, where new research items relating to wider science stories of interest are presented by Dr. Tim Sandle on a weekly basis.
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More about Kangaroos, animal communication, Animals, Nature
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