Watch This Goldfish Drive an Aquarium on Wheels

A gif image of a fish navigating a tank on wheels
The fish’s movements, orientation, and location in the tank were translated into instructions for the wheels of the vehicle. The fish moves the car forward, backward, left and right. Shahar Givon and Matan Samina of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel

A quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein states, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

By that logic, how smart is a fish that can learn to drive?

In a new study, researchers designed a suped-up aquarium on wheels to see if a goldfish can learn to navigate on dry land—and it worked. The experiment is meant to determine whether a fish’s navigation skills are universal regardless of their environment. The study will be published in the February 2022 issue of Behavioural Brain Research. 

For survival, animals need navigation skills to find food, seek mates, migrate and more. However, researchers do not fully understand whether these navigation skills are specific to the environment an animal evolved to survive in. The ability to use navigation skills in unfamiliar settings is known as domain transfer methodology, reports Jonathan M. Gitlin for Ars Technica.  

To determine whether a fish can navigate on dry land, the scientists used a fish-operated vehicle (FOV) with special software and a motion-sensing camera that can monitor where the fish is swimming in its rolling aquarium.

When the fish bumps into the tank’s walls or swims forward, for example, a camera above the tank tracks that movement. Based on the camera’s signalling, an algorithm moves the tank, allowing the fish to “drive” the car. The algorithm is powered by a small programming computer called Raspberry Pi, Ars Technica reports.

Before the experimental tests could begin, the goldfish needed to learn how to drive the FOV. Six adventurous goldish were enrolled in “driving school” to learn how to move the FOV before the team collected the data. In 30-minute sessions conducted every two days, the fish were rewarded if they successfully directed the car to a pink-colored target in an enclosed space, Ars Technica reports.

The fish’s movement, orientation, and location were translated into instructions for the wheels of the FOV, allowing the car to move forward, backward, left or right. To move in a specific direction, the fish must be facing outside the tank in the direction it was moving towards. If a fish was oriented toward the middle of the tank, no movement would occur, reports Aristos Georgiou for Newsweek.

Once the goldfish were ready to speed off, the researchers tested their navigational skills by seeing if they could drive to a target. To check and see if the fish were actually navigating to targets and not just memorizing movements to earn a reward, the team changed the FOV’s starting position and added decoy targets in different colors.

All six fish successfully drove toward the visual target and even approached their mark from different angles, suggesting that the fishes understand the world around them, per Ars Technica. They all avoided dead-ends and corrected themselves throughout the trials, Vice reports.

All fish improved their time as the task was repeated. This finding suggests that the fish could learn from their environment and adjust accordingly. Not only does this show that fish can drive, but they can also adapt an ecosystem completely different from their own and move through it, reports Audrey Carleton for Vice.

“It shows that goldfish have the cognitive ability to learn a complex task in an environment completely unlike the one they evolved in. As anyone who has tried to learn how to ride a bike or to drive a car knows, it is challenging at first,” study author Shachar Givon, a graduate student at Ben-Gurion University, said in a statement.

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