Two goldfish are in a tank. One says to the other, “OK, you man the guns and I’ll drive.”
That classic dad joke may not be so absurd to scientists who recently trained six goldfish to drive what they call a “fish operated vehicle,” or FOV.
The aim of the study, conducted by researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, was to find out whether a goldfish’s navigational ability is universal, or whether it’s restricted to the fish’s home environment. In other words, they wanted to see whether a goldfish’s underwater navigational skills work, say, on land.
Since goldfish need to be underwater to breathe, the scientists had to use a creative method to test their land skills. That’s where the FOV came in. A small goldfish tank was placed on a set of wheels, and the vehicle used a camera and remote sensing system that moved the whole apparatus in whatever direction the goldfish swam.
This video shows the process in action:
To test the animals’ ability to find their way around on land, the researchers successfully trained the fish to move the FOV toward various targets for a food reward. They then amped up the difficulty by making the task harder ― for instance, by changing the starting point of the FOV.
The goldfish “indeed 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,” the researchers wrote.
That means the fish were pretty good drivers. And it suggests goldfish may be smarter than many people give them credit for.
“The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment,” Ph.D. student and lead researcher Shachar Givon said in a press release issued by the university. “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.”