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A group of eastern grey kangaroos

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Kangaroos in zoos and sanctuaries use body language to ask humans for help, much like horses and dogs do, which suggests that even wild animals can learn to communicate with humans just by being around them.

This overturns previous theories that animals’ ability to communicate with humans resulted from domestication, says Alan McElligott at City University of Hong Kong.

Fifty million kangaroos – an animal family that has never been domesticated – roam freely in groups across Australia. They are so common that they are “the equivalent of deer in Europe”, says McElligott. However, thousands of these marsupials live in zoos, parks and sanctuaries for educational or protective purposes.

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McElligott and his colleagues studied 16 kangaroos of three different subspecies living in captivity in Australia. Using methods similar to those used in previous studies on horses, dogs and goats, the scientists first trained the kangaroos to find a tasty treat – bits of carrots, corn or sweet potatoes – in a small box. Then they closed the box in a way that made it impossible for kangaroos to open and observed how the animals responded.

Like their domestic counterparts in earlier experiments, the kangaroos consistently turned to a nearby human for help.

“They’d look straight up at my face, like a dog or a goat would do, and back at the box, and some even came up and scratched my knee like a dog pawing [for attention],” says McElligott. This happened across the range of subspecies, from the typically “friendly” western grey kangaroos (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus) to the generally more “skittish” eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) and red kangaroos (Macropus rufus), he says.

“I was really shocked,” says McElligott, referring to the two less docile species. “I didn’t even think we would get through the training protocol with them.”

Although little is known about social behaviour and cognition in kangaroos, it is possible that living in social groups makes them more likely to reach out for help, even to someone outside their own species, he says.

Whether this means all wild animals living in social groups would ask humans for help if they were familiar with them remains to be seen, says McElligott.

Journal reference: Royal Society Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2020.0607

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