G’day, mate! Kangaroos inherently know how to communicate with humans

HONG KONG — Have you grown tired of talking with other humans? If so, a new report finds you might want to try your luck communicating with kangaroos instead. A groundbreaking study by researchers at the City University of Hong Kong finds undomesticated animals like kangaroos can indeed willfully communicate with humans.

Up until now, it had been generally accepted that only domesticated animals like dogs, cats, and horses are capable of intentionally communicating with people. Researchers with the University of Roehampton in England and the University of Sydney also helped to conduct this study.

kangaroo communication
A kangaroo displays gaze alternation between the transparent box with food inside it and with a human. (Credit: Dr. Alexandra Green)

Experiments at three Australian locations confirm kangaroos tend to gaze at nearby humans while attempting to eat food placed inside a box. The kangaroos were unable to open the boxes themselves and almost always looked up at the human test subject, as if to indicate “help!” Researchers say this type of behavior is usually only seen among domesticated animals.

Among 11 kangaroos, 10 continually looked at the person who had put the food in the box for help. Furthermore, nine of those kangaroos even continually looked back and forth between the box and the person. Study authors say they consider this an even more profound display of communication; one in which the marsupials are attempting to communicate, roughly, “Hey I need help with that box over there.”

Kangaroos are a social bunch

This is just the latest study in a series of works from lead author Dr. Alan McElligott, formerly of the University of Roehampton, now based at City University of Hong Kong. Dr. Mcelligott has been studying communication between domesticated animals and humans for some time. Similar to domesticated species like goats or dogs, kangaroos are a naturally sociable bunch. Researchers theorize that kangaroos are capable of quickly applying their social skills to human communications.

“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 that we have seen in dogs, horses and even goats when put to the same test,” Dr. Mcelligott explains in a university release. “This 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. Gaining a more comprehensive understanding of the behaviors of a species is key to improving their welfare.”

“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,” concludes Dr. Alexandra Green from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney.

The study is published in Biology Letters.