Animals that have never been domesticated, such as kangaroos, can intentionally communicate with humans, a groundbreaking study from the University of Sydney and University of Roehampton in London has found.
This challenges the notion that this behaviour is usually restricted to domesticated animals like dogs, horses or goats.
The research paper, published in the journal Biology Letters, revealed that kangaroos gazed at a human when trying to access food which had been put in a closed plastic container. The animals used gazes to communicate with the people after trying and failing to open the container themselves.
Behaviour expected from domesticated animals
According to the scientists, this is a behaviour that is usually expected for domesticated animals.
“Their gaze was pretty intense,” said co-author Dr Alexandra Green, a post-doctoral researcher based at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science.
“We’ve previously thought only domesticated animals try to ask for help with a problem. But kangaroos do it too. 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.”
Interaction is a heightened form of communication
In the tests, ten out of 11 kangaroos actively looked at the person who had put the food in a plastic container, in order to get access to it. This type of experiment is known as ‘the unsolvable problem task’.
Nine of the 11 kangaroos additionally showed gaze alternations between the container and the person present, which is a heightened form of communication.
“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,” explained the lead author, Dr Alan McElligott from the University of Roehampton (now based at City University of Hong Kong).
Familiar with humans, but still non-domesticated
The kangaroos in the study were not wild kangaroos in the bush, as they would be too fearful around humans.
The kangaroos were captive animals living at a number of zoos in Australia. They were familiar with humans, but they are still non-domesticated. The definition of domesticated is animals selectively bred over generations to live alongside people.
“Our research shows that the potential for intentional communication towards humans by animals has been underestimated, which signals an exciting development in this area,” Dr McElligott said.