In a novel investigation of animal behaviour, a goldfish has learnt to drive a robotic car – and was able to navigate a room toward a treat.
The fish beat all attempts by research to stymie its efforts.
The study, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, asked a simple yet intriguing question: Is an animal’s innate navigational abilities universal (it can take them anywhere) or are they restricted to their home environments?
The short answer: Yes.
Early experiments with caged birds (covered in ink) found they were naturally drawn to fly toward and bump up against the side of the cage, always in the direction of their migrating route.
Going where no goldfish had gone before, the researchers designed a set of wheels under a goldfish tank “with a camera system to record and translate the fish’s movements into forward and back and side to side directions to the wheels”.
By doing so, they discovered that “a goldfish’s navigational ability supersedes its watery environs”.
Their findings were published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Behavioural Brain Research.
The researchers tested whether the fish was really navigating by placing a clearly visible target on the wall opposite the tank.
After a few days of training, the fish navigated to the target.
Even better, they were able to do so even if they were interrupted in the middle by hitting a wall and “they were not fooled by false targets placed by the researchers”.
The researchers concluded that their study “hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment”.
Perhaps more surprisingly, given the goldfish has a reputation for being brainless, the study demonstrated 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,” said Shachar Givon, a PhD student in the Life Sciences Department in the Faculty of Natural Sciences.