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Kangaroos 'talk' to humans, finds study

The findings indicate that animals could adapt their behaviours to communicate with other species

Kangaroos, including one carrying a joey in its pouch, stand by the side of a road on Mount Macedon, outside Melbourne, Australia (Reuters)

It's not just your pet dog, cat or calf that can communicate with you, nudging you for dinner or a cuddle, but researchers have found that even some animals which have never been domesticated can "intentionally communicate with humans." The findings indicate that it's not just domestication that prompts animals to communicate with humans, and that animals could adapt their behaviours to communicate with other species.

The study, published by The Royal Society and conducted by the University of Roehampton in London and the University of Sydney, observed kangaroos in three location across Australia and found that the marsupials use gazes to communicate with humans, even if they had never been domesticated or come in contact with the people before.

The research team put food into a box that the kangaroo would not be able to open on its own. This type of experiment is known as "the unsolvable problem task". Faced with such a challenge, 10 our of 11 kangaroos looked to humans with a variety of gazes to get at the food rather than trying to open the boxes themselves. This is the kind of behaviour that is usually expected from domesticated animals. "Nine of the 11 kangaroos additionally showed gaze alternations between the box and the person present, a heightened form of communication where they look between the box and human." it observes.

The research builds on previous work on communication by domesticated animals, such as dogs and goats, and whether intentional communication in animals is a result of domestication, Science Daily reports. Like dogs, kangaroos are social animals and this could be a factor leading to such behaviour.

"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. Indeed, kangaroos showed a very similar pattern of behaviour we have seen in dogs, horses and even goats when put to the same test," one of the lead authors Dr Alan McElligott told Science Daily. "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," he said.

The paper's authors observed: "In summary, given appropriate positive interactions, many social mammal species probably have the potential to modify behaviours that have evolved to communicate within their own species and instead display them in a manner that may suggest intentional human-directed communication."

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