Goldfish controls its own aquarium via a robot

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A good sense of direction is essential for animals in the wild. Only those who, as a hunter, find their prey unerringly or, as a hunted person, find shelter in good time, survive. But how universal are the navigational skills of animals? Israeli behavioral researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Scheva wanted to answer this question with a bizarre experimental setup using the example of a goldfish.

To this end, the researchers working with Shachar Givon and Matan Samina constructed a “Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV)” in which a small, glass aquarium was mounted on a mobile base. An observation system consisting of a camera and a laser scanner followed the fish’s movements from above. The electronic control system steered the vehicle, which is driven by electric motors, always exactly in the direction in which the fish was oriented or swam until it made contact with the glass pane of the aquarium. In this way the goldfish could also move “on land”. This experimental approach is based on a method of behavioral research in which animals are torn from their habitual habitat and placed in an unfamiliar environment.

Ben-Gurion University

The researchers trained the goldfish for several days and taught it how to steer the vehicle. To do this, they conditioned the fish to a target outside the aquarium. If the fish steered the vehicle to this object, it was rewarded with food. Gradually, the fish learned how to control the vehicle so well that it was even able to drive around small obstacles in order to reach the target object – including the food reward. “This study provides evidence that the ability to navigate is universal and independent of the specific environment,” says Givon. It also shows that a goldfish can perform complex cognitive tasks outside of its usual habitat.

It is rather questionable whether this experiment can be regarded as hard evidence for the universality of the animals’ sense of direction. Because the fish itself remains in its original water environment and reaches the target object – which may not be clearly recognizable for it – solely through its swimming movements that are typical for it. But perhaps even more sophisticated experimental concepts will be found in the future to study the behavior of animals outside their habitats. However, the experiment is definitely proof of the amazing learning ability of goldfish.

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