Kangaroos Can 'Talk' to Humans With Unique Gaze, Just Like Dogs, Says Study

Some think they're just a pest, but perhaps this will change the Kangaroo consensus.
Brad Bergan

Completely undomesticated animals — like kangaroos — can intentionally communicate with humans, flipping the script on the idea of intentional connection from animals to humans only happening with domesticated animals like dogs, goats, or horses — in a first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Biology Letters.


Kangaroos can 'talk' to humans with unique gaze

The new research involved kangaroos — or marsupials with no previous domestication — in three locations throughout Australia. It showed how kangaroos gaze at a human when it tries to access food placed in a closed box, according to a blog post on the University of Roehampton's official website, which collaborated with the University of Sydney in this study.

Instead of trying to open the box themselves, the kangaroos tried to get humans to do it with a gaze — a behavior typically expected of domesticated animals.

Ten of the 11 kangaroos tested actively looked at the person who'd put food in a box with the presumed intention to get the humans to open it — in an experiment called "the unsolvable problem task." Nine of the 11 kangaroos also showed remarkable alterations in the type of gaze between the box and the person present — which suggests a heightened type of communication involving a shifting gaze between the box and the human.

Lead author studies animal behavior from human cues

This latest research builds on previous work in the field — which has studied communication in domesticated animals like goats and dogs — in addition to answering the question of whether intentional communication in animals comes from domestication, or elsewhere.

Alan McElligott of the University of Roehampton (now at Hong Kong's City University) and lead author on the study, led an earlier study, which linked goat behavior to human cues — including gathering information on their environment from human pointing.

Kangaroos show similar behaviors as dogs, goats

Just like goats and dogs, kangaroos are social animals, and McElligott's latest research suggests they can also adapt social behaviors to adjust the way they interact with humans.

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"Through this study, we were able to see that communication between animals can be learnt (sic) and that the behavior of gazing at humans to access food is not related to domestication," said McElligott in the blog post. "Indeed, kangaroos — showed a very similar pattern of behavior we have seen in dogs, horses and even goats when put to the same test."

Flipping the script on kangaroo consensus

"Our research shows that the potential for referential intentional communication towards humans by animals has been underestimated, which signals an exciting development in this area," added McElligott. "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."

Everyone knows how kangaroos are adored not only in Australia — but globally. Some are aware of the perception in some places of the marsupials as a common pest, but few and increasingly more as time moves on will now know: if we box their food, they will gaze at us to make a connection, and communicate. Perhaps this will change the kangaroo consensus.