Though many were quick to assume an eastern grey male kangaroo and accompanying joey were in mourning, photographed clinging to his mate long after her death, the more likely truth is he was still keen to mate.
Last week while on a morning stroll in the brush, Australian Evan Switzer spotted a rather unusual sight—a male kangaroo trying to revive a dead female as a joey looked on. Switzer did what any good nature lover would do: ran for his camera. When he returned to the site, Switzer told the Daily Mail Australia emotions remained high.
‘I saw the male pick up the female…like he was just trying to get her up and see what was wrong with her,’ he said. ‘He would lift her up and she wouldn’t stand she’d just fall to the ground, he’d nudge her, stand besides her … it was a pretty special thing, he was just mourning the loss of his mate.’ Switzer added he’d seen lots of dead roos before, but nothing like this.
Switzer took to social media to share his images on the 11th, causing an ‘ahhhh’ heard round the world and many outlets took the bait, broadcasting the photos of the supposedly grief-stricken scene as touching and heartbreaking. But just a day later, most reported an amendment to the story. The male in question was not in fact grieving but continuing to attempt to mate with the fallen female, Dr. Derek Spielman, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Sydney told The Guardian Australia, holding onto her to ward off other males. On top of this bubble-shattering truth, the female could have died from injuries sustained during sex.
It turns out kangaroo mating is far from cute and cuddly. Actually it’s downright dangerous.
‘Competition between males to mate with females can be fierce…It can also cause severe harassment and even physical abuse of the target female, particularly when she is unresponsive or tries to get away from amorous male,’ says Spielman. ‘Pursuit of these females by males can be persistent and very aggressive to the point where they can kill the female.’
Of course that’s not the intent, added Spielman, but can unfortunately be the result. ‘Interpreting the male’s actions as being based on care for the welfare of the female or the joey is a gross misunderstanding,’ he said.
More proof of the point? According to Dr. Mark Eldridge, Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in his post explaining the kangaroo misunderstanding on the Museum’s website, the truth behind the affair was clear. The males’ arms were wet from licking, an effort to cool off from the heat of arousal. And his scrotum was bulging—‘the evidence is here sticking out from behind the scrotum (yes, in marsupials the penis is located behind the scrotum).’ It gets worse. The female kangaroo is not, says Eldridge, ‘propp[ing] up her head so she could see her joey before she died…this is a male trying to get a female to stand up so he can mate with her.’
So why did so many get the story wrong to start with? It’s a typical case of ‘naive anthropomorphism,’ says Spielman, assigning human traits and characteristics to non-human life. And it’s a thing all too easily done. Many of us have scolded our cat for scratching the furniture, or cursed a crow going through the trash bin; in some way believing the critter knew their wrongdoings.
But emotions like this aren’t really a ‘wild’ thing. Kangaroos haven’t been shown to experience emotions like grief, so we shouldn’t assume the male, or even joey, would naturally be grieving the female’s death. ‘These are not little people, they are kangaroos,’ Eldridge told the BBC.
So next time social media lights up with a super-cute, nearly unbelievable story, look at the evidence closely. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.