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article imageOp-Ed: True roos — Kangaroo intelligence and social skills proven

By Paul Wallis     Dec 18, 2020 in Science
Sydney - Aboriginal stories have a lot to say about kangaroos. If you’ve ever met one in the wild, they make a lot of sense. Now, finally, European science is starting to agree… In a sort of oblique way.
Researchers from the University of Roehampton (UK) and the University of Sydney have found that kangaroos can communicate in a similar way to domesticated animals. They were required to get food out of a locked box, which they couldn’t get without help, and they did ask for human help.
They looked at the researcher, then at the box, then at the researcher again. They came closer and sniffed and pawed to get attention. There was no doubt that they were trying to get his attention specifically to open the box for them.
(The kangaroos in question are grey kangaroos, not the big red guys which can kick someone straight back up his ancestry as far as he’d like to go. Do NOT approach any kangaroo in the wild and expect a research thesis to be proven. Leave it to the experts.)
A personal story about roos
I have no difficulty believing this. I’ve met roos in the wild and they’re generally pretty cool. One grey roo, in particular, was more than friendly. He was trying to help me. I was in the bush about a kilometre from my place, when I saw him, about 100 metres away near a dried-up wetland. He saw me, and came hopping over. He went well out of his way. He raised a paw, like a traffic cop. I didn’t get it. He was obviously trying to communicate, but I simply didn’t understand.
…I then went on my bush walk and for the first and only time in my life, got lost in the bush. If it hadn’t been for a fallen tree the size of a road train, I’d probably still be there. I have no explanation whatsoever for what or why the roo was trying to communicate, but that was what happened. I never get lost in the bush. That time I did, and that roo was obviously trying to tell me something. This was totally atypical behaviour for a roo. They don’t go out of their way to mix with people. This one hopped 100 metres to do that.
Aboriginal stories about kangaroos
The aboriginal stories don’t doubt kangaroo intelligence. They emphasize it. There’s a classic story in a book called I, the Aboriginal, in which an Alawa boy being taught to hunt is shown a kangaroo. The teacher/hunter tells him that kangaroos will catch flies in their paws, and if they smell humans on the flies, they shoot through. (European science isn’t exactly informative on how roos use their forepaws at all.)
I’ve never seen that myself, nor heard it from another source, but familiarity with bush animals tells me:
• The more mindblowing the information about Australian animals, the more likely it is to be accurate.
• Australian animals do not give a damn about “animal behaviour theory”, never have, and never will.
• Birds, marsupials, reptiles, and everything else have their own perspectives, and in the bush, you’re very likely to find out what those perspectives are.
Kangaroos are quite smart by any standards
Kangaroos are naturally alert. They have to be. They travel far and fast, and they need situational awareness to manage rough country, (Any leg injury can be catastrophic for a roo, so they need to watch where they’re going, at 40mph cross-country.) many different types of predators, and humans. They need to get a lot of information to find food and water, so they have to be observant. It’s no surprise at all to me that a group of them would try to get someone to help them.
The researchers are possibly slightly off track in one respect. Kangaroos are “social”, to a point. They don’t necessarily herd like other herbivores. In the bush, they will forage for themselves often many in the same place, but they follow the food, not the script. There is usually a local population which groups or doesn’t group around food.
Social groups are far more likely during mating season when they have to interact with each other. Red roos are decidedly antisocial at that time, and male roos do fight. Otherwise, they’re about as social as they need to be. I think it’s underestimating the natural smarts of kangaroos to think they wouldn’t figure out how to get help with something like getting help to open a box. Australians wouldn't be totally surprised if a few roos fixed a broken down truck. Ah well, science has to catch up sometime.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about University of Roehampton, University of Sydney, kangroo communication skills, kangaroos in the wild, kangaroo stories
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