Fans of the iconic television show Skippy (and that oft-repeated question, “what’s up Skip?”) will be pleased to know that kangaroos do in fact try to communicate with humans.
While they can’t capture crooks or play the drums like the star of the show, a new study reveals that kangaroos gaze at humans to ask for help after trying and failing to open a food container.
The research from the University of Sydney (USyd) and the University of Roehampton, UK, adds to the hypothesis that the effects of domestication on animal cognition may expand beyond the usual domestic species such as dogs and horses.
“Their gaze was pretty intense,” says USyd’s Alexandra Green. “If they can’t open the box, they look at the human and back to the container. Some of them used their nose to nudge the human and some approached the human and started scratching at him asking for assistance.”
Green and Roehampton’s Alan McElligott focused on Kangaroo Island roos (Macropus fuliginosus), which are known to be docile and interactive with humans, but also tested some Eastern Greys (Macropus giganteus) and Reds (Macropus rufus), which are not.
“Through this study, we were able to see that communication between animals can be learnt and that the behaviour of gazing at humans to access food is not related to domestication,” says McElligott, who is lead author of a paper in Biology Letters.
“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.”
Future research on kangaroos, the authors suggest, should focus on the visual cues and behaviours they use for social interactions within their own species to determine whether they are the same as used to interact with humans.
Neither researcher is new to the field of animal communication skills.
McElligott’s previous work includes shedding light on the ability of goats to perceive human-given cues to find hidden food in buckets, while in a study last year Green found that cows maintain individual vocalisation in the herd.
The cows were shown to have individual cues in a variety of situations to express excitement, arousal, engagement and distress.
Amelia Nichele is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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