MELBURNE, Australia When hungry, they will notify you by coming to you and prayerfully looking at you and the food container.
If this does not work, they will smell and touch your foot.
No, we were not talking about dogs. We were talking about kangaroos.
Researchers at the University of Roehampton in Britain and the University of Sydney in Australia say such behavior led them to a startling discovery: Kangaroos can communicate with humans, similar to the way dogs, horses, and goats do, even though they have never been tamed.
Kangaroos are the first wild animals to exhibit a behavior most commonly seen in domesticated species, communicating requests for help from a human, the researchers said. Until now, researchers had hypothesized that this type of inter-species communication had only existed in animals that had evolved along with humans.
The study suggests a higher level of intelligence in the iconic Australian marsupials than was assumed.
The researchers said they hoped the results would convince people, especially Australians, to treat kangaroos more carefully. Although they are in the country’s coats of arms and are considered something of a national treasure, they are also seen as a nuisance and destroyed every year because of their surplus.
There were nearly 50 million kangaroos across Australia in 2017, double the human population, according to official estimates. Farmers complain that kangaroos eat pastures intended for livestock while researchers worry that they are a threat to endangered wildlife destroying habitat and eating reptiles.
There is a section of the population that thinks they are pests and dumb and want to kill them, said Alan McElligott, the newspaper’s lead author. I think if the general public has a greater understanding of an animal’s cognitive abilities, it is easier to sell the idea that we should treat them with the best care possible.
The researchers trained and tested 11 kangaroos from Australian zoos over the past eight days last year to get food from a box. Then they locked the box, making it impossible for them to access food without assistance.
Initially, kangaroos sniffed and scratched the box. But as soon as they realized they could not open it, they turned their attention to Dr. McElligott, who was in closeness with them.
The kangaroos raised their eyes to me and they made this kind of alternating look looking at the box, back to me, back to the box, back to me, said Dr. McElligott, who previously worked at the University of Roehampton and is now an associate professor at Hong Kong City University.
Some of the kangaroos approached me and started sniffing my knee and scratching my knee, he added. If it were a dog, you would call it laminate.
Ten of the 11 kangaroos involved in the study actively watched Drs. McElligott and nine alternated between his gaze and the box containing the food.
They were really trying to deliberately communicate their desire to help him get food out of the box, said Alexandra Green, an animal behavior and welfare researcher at the University of Sydney who co-authored the works.
Dr. Green says she believes kangaroo behavior is a modification of how they communicate with each other in nature.
They are a social species and will use these signs among themselves, she said. In a captive environment, where people appear, they are probably able to adapt this ability to communicate with people.
The kangaroos used in the study, which was published Wednesday in Biology Letters, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published by the Royal Society, were not entirely wild, as they would have been dangerous to researchers. They had grown up in zoos and were familiar with people, but were still considered homeless.
Dr. McElligott said that in a similar study done with wolves, another untamed animal, wolves simply attacked food boxes with their teeth instead of making any attempt to ask people for help.
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