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.”

Image: A goldfish with human legs stands in front of an empty classroom.[Fish speech bubble: Where’s all the water?] Image text (top): Many land animals know how to move underwater.  But is the opposite true?  Image text (bottom): If a fish had the lungs and legs to move on land, could it navigate this unknown world?
Image: a goldfish in a square tank on wheels, with a camera on a perch stuck to the tank. [Fish speech bubble: Sweet wheels!] Image text (top): No one has the Disney magic to give a fish legs.  Thus, researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel, built a
Image: A goldfish in a wheelie tank walks towards a large pink square hanging on the wall. [Fish speech bubble: To the drive-through!]Image text (top): Researchers trained six goldfish to lead the tank from the center of a room to a pink panel on a wall.  Each time a fish reached the board, it received a treat.  Image text (bottom): The fish learned this skill in a dozen or so 30-minute lessons.
Image: A graph showing how the fish have improved over time.  In the upper right corner, the fish is in the tank on wheels. [Fish speech bubble: How’d I do?]Image text (top): The more the fish drove, the better they became.  They hit the pink board far more times in their last lesson than in their first.  Image text (bottom): At the end of the driver education, the fish also took more direct routes, heading faster towards their goal.
Image: Bird's eye views of the paths the fish take from their starting positions to the pink board during each of these three additional challenges.  Image text (top): The fish could still reach the pink board from different places in the room… Image text (middle): ...and when scientists placed different colored panels on the other walls… Image text (bottom): ...even when the pink board was moved to the other side of the room (although it took a few tries).
Image: Fish in an aquarium leaving a science lab, walks towards campus with a dog, with a scientist behind him, shouting and pointing.[Scientist speech bubble: Stop that fish!]

[Fish speech bubble: Ready for a road trip?]

[Dog speech bubble: Woof!]Image text: These results suggest that the navigational abilities of fish are not limited to their natural habitat.  They may even have something in common with the sense of direction of land animals.

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