Goldfish driving ‘cars’ offer new insight into navigation
One of TV’s most famous sea creatures, SpongeBob SquarePants, is a notoriously horrible driver. But new research suggests that real water dwellers aren’t so bad at driving.
In a new experiment, six goldfish learned to drive a water tank on wheels around a room. This feat of steering suggests that the navigational abilities of fish hold up even on land. This, in turn, suggests that the internal sense of orientation in fish has something in common with that of land animals. The researchers shared their findings on February 15 in Behavioral brain research.
The study was carried out at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. It’s in Beer-Sheva, Israel. The fish-mobile was armed with a camera to observe a fish inside the water tank. Each time the fish swam close to one of the tank walls, facing outward, the vehicle rolled in that direction. (Watch a quick video showing the fish-mobile in action here.)
Goldfish learned to drive during about ten lessons of about 30 minutes. The researchers trained each fish to navigate from the center of a room to a pink board on a wall. They did this by giving the fish a treat each time it reached the pink tray. During the first lesson, the fish averaged about 2.5 successful trips to the target. During their last lesson, the fish made an average of about 17.5 successful trips.
Swimmers could still reach the pink board from different places in the venue. And when the researchers tried tricks – placing decoy panels on other walls or moving the pink panel across the room – the fish weren’t fooled. They still went to the pink board to receive their treat.
“It was quite conclusive that the fish actually sail,” says Ohad Ben-Shahar. He is a computer scientist who studies neuroscience. He is also a co-author of the new study.
Kelly Lambert was “not completely surprised, but still intrigued” by the fish’s driving abilities. Lambert is a behavioral neuroscientist. She works at the University of Richmond in Virginia. In her lab, she taught rats to drive toy cars. Teaching fish to navigate outside of their natural habitat takes those driving studies to the next level, she says. “I love the idea of fish out of water.”
Lambert wonders which animals make the best drivers. “I think we need an international race between rats and goldfish.”