A viral photograph of a kangaroo clutching a dying companion may not be the emotional portrait of grief we first thought, according to a scientist from the Australian Museum.
Evan Switzer, a resident of Hervey Bay, Queensland, captured the intimate scene at River Heads while bushwalking on Monday morning, taking it for a beautiful moment of sadness shared between a family of marsupials.
But, Mark Eldridge, a principal scientist at the museum, told The New Daily the male kangaroo in the image was sexually aroused, and frustrated at the lifelessness of the female.
“I was browsing this morning and stumbled across [the images] and it jumped out at my straight away,” Dr Eldridge said.
“The male is definitely sexually aroused and worked up. The wetness on the forearms on the chest shows his very agitated and stressed.”
Dr Eldridge said it was possible the kangaroo had been chasing the female around in the heat prior to her death, contributing to its sweaty appearance.
If correct, the news will come as a disappointment to the thousands of Australians who shared the image on social media on Thursday, believing it was a rare example of animal grief.
But Dr Eldridge said such emotion had never been documented in marsupials.
“We need to stop anthropomorphising these animals and acting like they’re little people,” he said.
The image also caught the attention of the public for its portrayal of a joey’s last look into its dying mother’s eyes.
Dr Eldridge dispelled that myth too, saying it was not unusual for a joey to hang around while its mother mated, then start suckling again shortly after.
The news may also come as a disappointment to Mr Switzer, who described seeing the rare display of marsupial grief as “special” in an interview with the Daily Mail.