Here’s What Goldfish Driving “Cars” Tell Us About Navigation
It may seem like a fish needs a car like – well, like a fish needs a bike. But a new experiment suggests that fish are actually very good conductors.
In the experiment, several goldfish learned to drive what is essentially the opposite of a submarine – a water tank on wheels – to destinations within a room. The fact that these fish can maneuver on land suggests that fish’s understanding of space and navigation is not limited to their natural environment – and perhaps has something in common with the fish’s internal sense of orientation. land animals, researchers report in the Feb. 15. Behavioral brain research.
Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, have taught six goldfish how to steer a motorized water tank. The fishmobile was equipped with a camera that continuously tracked the position and orientation of a fish feeder inside the tank. Each time the fish swam close to one of the tank walls, facing outward, the vehicle would move away in that direction.
The fish were educated on how to drive for about a dozen 30-minute sessions. The researchers trained each fish to drive from the center of a small room to a pink board on a wall, giving the fish a treat each time it reached the wall. During their first few sessions, the fish made an average of about 2.5 successful trips to the target. During their last sessions, the fish averaged about 17.5 successful trips. At the end of the traffic education, the animals also took faster and more direct routes to their goal.
Some of the fish – all named after Pride and Prejudice characters – learned faster than others. “Mr. Darcy was the best,” says study co-author and neuroscientist Ronen Segev.
In other experiments, goldfish were still able to reach the pink board from random positions around the room, rather than in the center. This finding confirmed that the fish did not simply memorize a choreography of moves to reach their reward, but planned routes to their prize each time. When the researchers tried to trick the goldfish by placing different colored decoy panels on the other walls or moving the pink panel to the other side of the room, the fish weren’t fooled and sailed to the pink panel.
“It was pretty conclusive that the fish actually sail,” says study co-author Ohad Ben-Shahar, a computer scientist and neuroscientist. Recently, the team let a goldfish wander around an entire building, Ben-Shahar says, “and it actually started exploring. He went down one of the hallways and started running away.
Behavioral neuroscientist Kelly Lambert is “not completely surprised, but still intrigued” by the driving abilities of Mr. Darcy and his fishy friends. In his own research at the University of Richmond in Virginia, Lambert trained rats to drive toy cars. But teaching goldfish to navigate such alien terrain takes animal-driving experiences to the next level, says Lambert. “I love the idea of fish out of water.”
When it comes to testing the limits of animal navigation, “it’s important to diversify and expand our tasks and our species,” says Lambert. “I think we need an international race between rats and goldfish.”