Ben-Gurion University researchers teach goldfish to drive

The goldfish were placed in a camera-operated motorized vehicle across several different sides of a room and had to reach a target area marked by a red line.

goldfish in a bowl 300 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
goldfish in a bowl 300
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

Researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev say they have taught a goldfish to operate a FOV – a ​​“Fish Operated Vehicle” – and that its ability to drive proves that fish can develop spatial awareness and navigate foreign environments.

In their study, which was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Behavioural Brain Research, the fish were put in a fish tank attached to a wheeled apparatus that was navigated by a camera tracking the fish’s movement and a linked computer system that followed the fish’s movement toward the walls of the tank, subsequently moving the vehicle in that direction.

The fish were placed on all sides of the room, had to reach a target area marked by a red line and were rewarded with food if they reached their target. Undeterred by numerous decoys and tricks, the fish seemed to improve as the experiment progressed, going from needing up to 30 minutes to find a target to later reaching it within 60 seconds. The study shows that even small fish – often associated with small brain sizes – can learn and adapt at similar speeds to even the smartest mammals.

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,” said study co-authors Shachar Givon of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Life Sciences and Matan Samina of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

“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,” said the study’s authors. “This hints at universality in the way space is represented across environments.”

The study is among many in the scientific field of animals operating motor vehicles, studied for various reasons, but always entertaining. In 2014, for instance, researchers from the Netherlands led a similar experiment where a goldfish operated an RC (remote controlled) car based on motion captured by a camera device.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is renowned for its research departments across medical and scientific fields.