Just keep driving

Israeli scientists train goldfish to steer car around room

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University say fish managed to take specially designed vehicle to targets for rewards, showing that navigation may be independent of environment

It sounds like a fish tale, but scientists at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba say they have demonstrated a fish’s ability to navigate on land, allowing it to drive a specially designed “Fish Operated Vehicle” around a room.

Six goldfish trained to use the apparatus managed to find their way around the small room and toward a reward, wrote the authors of a study published this month in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

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 Shachar Givon and Matan Samina, who published the research along with Ohad Ben Shahar and Ronen Segev.

The study adds to a small cohort of literature in which animals are tasked with operating motor vehicles, with experiments performed in the past showing that rats and dogs can tootle around in specially designed cars.

But with the fish experiment, the Beersheba researchers say they have shown that navigation skills can be transferred from a marine environment to a terrestrial one, not unlike similar studies that tracked animal behaviors in zero- or low-gravity environments.

“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. “This hints at universality in the way space is represented across environments.”

A goldfish operating a fish operated vehicle. (screen capture: Twitter/Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

To perform the experiment, the fish were put in a tank attached to a wheeled apparatus, which was attached to a camera tracking the fish’s movement and a computer system designed to respond to the fish’s movement toward the walls of the tank by moving the vehicle in that direction.

Several different experiments were designed, in which the fish were able to move to a target area, and receive a reward of a small bit of food for doing so. Even when starting the vehicle at different points in the room, or moving the target, the fish were eventually able to find their way.

The fish were also not fooled by decoy targets set up around the room, and, as time went on, their performance improved. Many of the fish went from needing 30 minutes to find the target, to finding it in under a minute.

While the scientists say they were the first to study what they term domain transfer methodology in fish, they are not the first to give the water-bound the ability to explore dry land.

In 2014, a team of computer scientists from the Netherlands designed a similar apparatus that allowed a goldfish to drive around a room. In that case, though, the project was designed to demonstrate the possibilities of computer vision, and in the words of its inventors “liberate fish all over the world.”

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