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Scientists Train Goldfish To Drive On Land In Tiny Cars


If the arrival of 2022 has you thinking “new year, new me” get in line, because the humble goldfish has taken reinvention to a whole new level in a recent study that’s got them driving about on land. Proving they are capable of dominating (read: navigating) alien environments, participant fish recently got behind the wheel of custom fish-operated vehicles (FOVs) to reach targets in return for a treat. That’s right everybody: fish can drive now.

The illuminating research comes from scientists at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, who wanted to explore if navigational skills are dependent on species, environment or brain structure, or if animals share generalizable skills which they can incorporate when, say, dumped into a water tank with wheels on dry land. Their results were published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

“One way to explore this issue behaviorally is by domain transfer methodology, where one species is embedded in another species’ environment and must cope with an otherwise familiar (in our case, navigation) task,” wrote the study authors. “Here we push this idea to the limit by studying the navigation ability of a fish in a terrestrial environment.”

The navigational task involved goldfish “driving” towards a visual target in their terrestrial environment which they could see through the walls of the tank. Curious as to how exactly one teaches a goldfish to drive? We were, too.

“Animal training usually follows a typical reinforcement (conditioning) procedure that “teaches” it what is a desired behavior,” Ohad Ben-Shahar told IFLScience. “In our case, it was based on allowing the fish to randomly ‘explore’ the FOV and its behavior, receiving reward (a food pellet) once it reached a designated target. After a while, usually several days, the fish becomes quite proficient in understanding what is its target and that it needs to drive the FOV towards it.”

RodentThe FOV, which facilitated the sequel Need For Speed: Fresh Out The Bowl (which hotly follows The Fast And The Furious: Rodent Rage) was effectively a tank atop a platform on wheels that reacted to the goldfish’s movements. The trained fish were then able to direct the FOV by swimming in the direction they wanted to go in. There were six drivers in total, all of which were goldfish (Carassius auratus) and ranged in sex.

Not only were the fish able to reach the targets, but they could overcome obstacles, dead ends and wrong turns, and weren’t fooled by false targets laid out by the researchers. Their FOV Formula One demonstrates that the navigational skills of fish aren’t dependent on a watery environment, and that something more universal may be at play in deciding how we find our way.

“The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment,” said lead author Shachar Givon in a statement emailed to IFLScience. “Second, 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.”

Could your next Amazon parcel arrive via goldfish courier service? Come on, Jeffrey, you can do it.

By Rachael Funnell

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