Goldfish are damn good conductors, research finds

  • Israeli scientists have trained six goldfish to operate a wheeled aquarium.
  • If the fish approaches a wall of their aquarium, the Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV) will move in that direction.
  • Goldfish can aim the FOV at pink targets on the lab wall, earning them a treat. The resulting research appears in the journal Behavioral research on the brain.

    They may have evolved in an aquatic world that is alien to us to the inhabitants of the earth, but goldfish have proven that they can navigate our world with a just a little bit practice. Case in point: Scientists from Ben-Gurion University in the Negev in Israel trained six goldfish to control an aquarium on wheels. The fish learned to drive the FOV (fish-operated vehicle) both indoors and outdoors to hit a target and earn a treat, according to new search published in the journal Behavioral research on the brain in January.

    Ronen Segev, behavioral specialist and author of the study, has been researching the navigation biology of fish for years. He says Popular mechanics he is fascinated by the long journeys that fish take in the wild to feed and reproduce, but most of these creatures cannot be studied in the laboratory.

    Goldfish, however, is an exception. This is because it is particularly hardy and thrives in a tank as well as in a pond. However, Segev was frustrated that an aquarium is not a good replica of a natural environment in which a fish would roam. In the wild, fish live in a much larger body of water alongside other plants and animals.

    Given these constraints, Segev decided to test the navigation prowess of goldfish by creating a mobile habitat. Study co-author and biomedical engineer Matan Samina designed a vehicle consisting of a water tank 1.5 meters long (about four feet and 11 inches); a camera positioned above the tank; and a computer-controlled motorized wheel assembly. However, the first prototype trial failed to support fish-led navigation. With the help of co-author Shachar Givon from the Department of Life Sciences, the team found a way to integrate the computer hardware controlling the wheels under the tank with the position and direction of the swimming fish at any given time. .

    “The fish move in three dimensions, so it was not trivial,” says Samina Popular mechanics. The camera, with computer control, takes a video of the tank from above. Image processing software detects the position of the fish relative to the walls of the tank and translates it into a command for the vehicle’s wheels. In other words, if the fish is approaching the wall of the tank, the FOV will move in that direction.

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    During the first sailing session, the movements of the fish were random. From the center of the room, he wandered off, eventually hitting his vehicle against the pink target on a lab wall and triggering a treat to fall into the tank. As the days went by, the fish repeated their quest for nibbling with shorter and shorter and more direct escapades.

    “It was very difficult at first,” says Segev. He compares him to a human learning to drive or ride a bicycle. It’s not a skill we’re born with, but we have the brain capacity to learn the many little things involved in these initially gigantic tasks. The fish too, as this experience shows.

    It surprised the team how quickly the fish learned to drive the vehicle, Samina says. To drive, fish need the cognitive ability of motor control and also the ability to navigate to a desired point. Goldfish has proven to have both. “This tells us that goldfish, and perhaps other underwater animals, can perceive the world around them in a similar way to land animals,” says Segev.

    “The fish are amazing. People thought that fish were primitive. This is not correct, “he explains.” Pisces have a very interesting and high cognitive ability to do a lot of sophisticated things. “

    Samina and Givon challenged the fish to demonstrate, without a doubt, that they really understood the geometry of the room and their own orientation inside. The researchers placed the fish-vehicle in random areas of the room rather than in the center, then moved the target to different places in the room. They set up additional false targets in other colors, but the fish weren’t fooled. Each time, they rose to the challenge and learned to find the target efficiently.

    “It was then that I was convinced that it was no longer a simple task that the fish solved,” says Segev. Even when they moved the FOV and target outside, the fish learned to find the target in their new surroundings. “The fish are amazing. People thought that fish were primitive. This is not correct, “he explains.” Pisces have a very interesting and high cognitive ability to do a lot of sophisticated things. ”

    For example, Atlantic salmon travel more than 6,000 miles to and from their native stream throughout their eight-year lifespan. They migrate to the ocean for food and eventually return to spawn. Scientists believe that salmon retain memories of the unique scent of their home stream to navigate, but can also sense the Earth’s magnetic field in a certain direction.

    Segev was inspired in part by the work of Kelly Lambert’s team at the University of Richmond in Virginia. In January 2020, Lambert, who studies behavioral neuroscience, published his own study in Behavioral research on the brain, describing rats using a transparent container on wheels. It’s no surprise that marine and land animals have evolved to navigate the spaces around them, she says. Popular mechanics. It is a basic need, essential to know where the food, the offspring or the partners are, in spite of the possible changes of the environment.

    Lambert’s experiments with a rat-powered vehicle show that rodents can learn to think differently when faced with navigational challenges. The ROV (Rodent Operated Vehicle) looks like the fish car, but has no water, of course. Experiments like this show that animals have a robust spatial awareness that transcends their natural environment, Lambert explains.

    Image courtesy of Ben Gurion University of the Negev

    The FOV experiments were innovative, she said, because they showed that goldfish could self-correct, depending on the variables they faced in each experimental session. “In my field of animal behavior in neuroscience, we’re always looking for this idea of ​​intelligence and what it means,” says Lambert. “In my experience, animals that are flexible in their learning try Plan A, which usually works, but then rotate and switch to Plan B if they need to.”

    Karen Maruska, a biologist at Louisiana State University, agrees that the FOV experiments underscore the universality of animals’ navigational abilities. “Many areas of the brain involved in performing cognitive tasks like this are well preserved, from fish to mammals, so fish have the neural circuits to do it,” she says. Popular mechanics in an email.

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    In fact, animals with less complex brains, such as tapeworms and spiders, use cues like touch, light and dark and chemical signatures to navigate, points out David Clark, a biologist at the Alma College in Michigan. “It’s really amazing research, both in the execution and the design of the experience. The idea that a fish can learn to operate a robotic aquarium is mind-boggling, ”he says. Popular mechanics in an email.

    As for the Segev team, the next step is to move the FOV to more difficult outdoor environments. For example, will the fish find a target that they cannot see at the start of a boating session? They believe FOV is a useful research tool for studying fish biology, which is why they released their design instructions. That way, if you want to make your own FOV, you can.

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