RESEARCH: Kangaroos can learn to ask humans for help

Research scientists have recently found that kangaroos in zoos and sanctuaries use body language to ask humans for help, much like horses and dogs do. The researchers think this suggests that wild animals can learn to engage in inter-species communication just by being around humans.

Previously, researchers thought that only domesticated animals had the ability to communicate with humans, said Alan McElligott at City University of Hong Kong.

Kangaroos in Australia have never been a domesticated animal. In Australia, there are about 50 million kangaroos that roam in groups, called mobs. But there are also thousands of kangaroos, and other marsupials such as wallabies and pademelons, that live in zoos, parks, and sanctuaries.

McElligott, and his colleagues Kristine O’Keeffe and Alexandra Green, studied 16 kangaroos of three different sub-species living in captivity in Australia. They studied Western Grey Kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus), Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus), and Red Kangaroos (Macropus rufus).

Using research methods similar to those used in previous studies on horses, dogs, and goats, the scientists first trained the kangaroos to find a tasty treat – bits of carrots, corn or sweet potatoes – in a small box. Then they closed the box in a way that made it impossible for the kangaroos to open. They observed how the kangaroos responded.

The researchers found that the kangaroos consistently went to a nearby human for help.

“They’d look straight up at my face, like a dog, or a goat would do, and back at the box, and some even came up and scratched my knee like a dog pawing,” said Alan McElligott. This happened for all three kangaroo sub-species.

“I was really shocked,” said McElligott. “I didn’t even think we would get through the training protocol with them.”

Although little is known about social behaviour and cognition in kangaroos, it is possible that living in social groups makes them more likely to reach out for help, even to someone outside their own species, McElligott says.

Whether this means that all wild animals living in social groups would ask humans for help if they were familiar with them is not certain. McElligott says more research is needed.

Journal referenceRoyal Society Biology Letters, 16 December 2020.

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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