Scientists have trained goldfishes to drive a mobile aquarium on land

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Jan 4, 2022 at 10:29 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Back in 2012, there was a possibility that you could pull up next to a Bearded Collie-cross puppy in a customised MINI Cooper at a traffic light. In 2019, this fever dream extended to include rats—driving around in tiny cars to lower their stress levels. Four days into 2022, we’ve got ‘swimming and drifting’ replacing ‘drinking and driving’ as goldfishes have taken the initiative to drive themselves around since we won’t take them out for a walk ourselves.

A group of scientists from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel have now demonstrated a fish’s navigation capabilities in unfamiliar environments. How? By tasking six goldfishes to drive on land in a mobile aquarium. Dubbed Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV), the apparatus consists of a plexiglass water tank placed on four motorised wheels. A camera was then mounted on top of the tank to track the fish’s movement and orientation—while a computer and LiDAR sensor detected the FOV’s location.

“The vehicle was designed to detect the fish’s position in the water tank and react by activating the wheels such that the vehicle moved in the specific direction according to the fish’s position,” the researchers told CTV News. “In this way, the vehicle’s reaction to the fish’s position allowed the fish to drive.” But what’s so advanced about that? Isn’t the fish merely swimming in its tank, oblivious to the world and the overarching mechanism in play here?

This is where the reward-based visual system comes into place. Dispensing food pellets as treats, the goldfishes were fed every time they navigated towards a pink stripe on a wall. This is the same methodology scientists used while toilet-training cows and priming bumblebees with caffeine to combat climate change and boost crop production respectively. The tasks essentially required the aquatic participants to actively navigate the vehicle around a larger, non-aquatic world.

Initially, all six goldfishes drove the FOV around randomly. But in under a week, they grasped the reward-based navigation concept. “The fish became progressively more proficient on the task and by the last session exhibited control of the FOV and a high level of success,” the study, published on ScienceDirect, reported. A majority of them even evolved from needing 30 minutes to find the target, to finding it in under a minute.

In order to test the limits of the species’ terrestrial navigation skills, the scientists switched up the starting position of the FOV in the room. Decoy targets in different colours were also placed to distract the participants. Nevertheless, all six goldfish always found their way to the desired target for their treats. “[The fish] were able to operate the vehicle, explore the new environment and reach the target regardless of the starting point, all while avoiding dead-ends and correcting location inaccuracies,” the study concluded.

Although the study can be grouped with similar experiments involving dogs and rats, the fact that a goldfish’s navigation skills are not solely limited to the underwater environment makes them stand out from the rest. Instead, they seamlessly transfer these abilities from a marine environment to a terrestrial one. “The way space is represented in the fish brain and the strategies it uses may be as successful in a terrestrial environment as they are in an aquatic one,” the authors said, as noted by The Times of Israel. “This hints at universality in the way space is represented across environments.” The study also provides substantial evidence against the myth that goldfishes only have a three-second memory.

The team is not the first to bestow the common aquatic pet with the ability to explore dry land either. In 2014, Studio diip—a digital design firm from the Netherlands—designed an electric car (called Fish on Wheels) that allows fish to steer their tank into a certain direction with computer vision. However, the only goal of this project was to create interactions that can empower animals and “liberate fish all over the world.”

While the scientists from Ben-Gurion University acknowledged the need for “further studies to extend these findings to more complex scenery such as an open terrestrial environment,” it raises questions about our eventual encounter with fishes on freeways. Or worse, our real-life brush with Carmichael—the talking goldfish in a human bodysuit from The Umbrella Academy.

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