A viral photograph that did the rounds this week is turning out to be a lot darker than previously thought.
The image of the three eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) was initially reported to show the male cradling a dying partner as their joey looks on. However, wildlife experts have said this is not the case – the reality is a lot more brutal.
Evan Switzer, the photographer who caught the moment in Queensland, Australia, noted the “protective” behavior at the time.
However, Dr. Derek Spielman, a senior lecturer in veterinary pathology at the University of Sydney, told The Guardian that he had “no doubt” the male kangaroo was actually trying to have sex with the female. In addition, he said it’s pretty likely that she was killed through the “severe harassment and even physical abuse” involved in kangaroos' intense mating behavior.
The kangaroo then went on to seize the female, in a behavior called “mate guarding,” to keep her away from other males.
“Competition between males to mate with females can be fierce and can end in serious fighting,” Spielman told The Guardian. “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 an amorous male.
“Pursuit of these females by males can be persistent and very aggressive to the point where they can kill the female. That is not their intention but that unfortunately can be the result, so interpreting the male’s actions as being based on care for the welfare of the female or the joey is a gross misunderstanding, so much so that the male might have actually caused the death of the female.”
Dr. Mark Eldridge, the Australian Museum's principal research scientist, has also talked about the image being misinterpreted on a blog post for the museum. He said he believes the joey in the image was probably trying to suckle his mother, unaware she was dead.
Dr. Eldridge told the BBC, "There is a strong bond between the mother and the young but it's hard to attribute emotions to those sorts of situations.
"There does seem to be much clearer evidence with more intelligent mammals such as apes and elephants, but there is not clear evidence with kangaroos," he added.
"These are not little people, they are kangaroos."