Overnight, a series of seemingly heartbreaking images of a dying female kangaroo went viral, after the photographer, Evan Switzer, explained that they showed a male cradling her head in her final moments. "It was a pretty special thing, he was just mourning the loss of his mate," he said.
But now experts have delivered a whole lot of nope to the situation, by explaining the science behind what's really going on. It turns out that the 'grieving' kangaroo is actually trying to mate with the female he's holding, and he may also have caused the injuries that killed her, as Derek Spielman, a lecturer in veterinary pathology at the University of Sydney in Australia, told The Guardian.
The images were taken on a property in River Heads in Queensland, and show a male eastern grey kangaroo holding the head of a dying female as her joey stands nearby. But it was the emotional story that accompanied this that saw them take on a life of their own and go viral.
"I saw the male pick up the female, he looked like he was just trying to get her up and see what was wrong with her," Switzer told The Daily Mail yesterday afternoon. "The mother's lifeless body is propped up at the neck by the male - who appears to look solemnly ahead, overcome with sadness, the newspaper added. "The baby kangaroo can do little but hold out its claws and touch its mother softly, before standing upright to her side in a protective stance."
In a blog that slowed down the Australian Museum website this morning, principle research scientist in mammalogy, Mark Eldridge, was quick to point out that the images had been "fundamentally misinterpreted" due to our tendency to anthropomorphise, or place human characteristics and emotions on animals.
"This is a male trying to get a female to stand up so he can mate with her," he said. "The male is clearly highly stressed and agitated, his forearms are very wet from him licking himself to cool down. He is also sexually aroused: the evidence is here sticking out from behind the scrotum (yes, in marsupials the penis is located behind the scrotum)."
Spielman backed up this assessment, telling Elle Hunt over at The Guardian that he had "no doubt" that the male was trying to have sex with the female, and added that he may have also been responsible for her death.
"Pursuit of these females by males can be persistent and very aggressive to the point where they can kill the female," said Spielman. "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."
Eastern grey kangaroos can breed throughout the year, but it most commonly (and aggressively, as it turns out) occurs in spring and early summer. The joey in the photos is most likely the female's last pouch young, and was probably still feeding from her at the time of her death, Eldridge adds.
So there you have it, folks, a timely reminder that as cute as our favourite animals are, their main focus is to procreate and survive. It's a brutal world out there.