Watch Out for These Goldfish ‘Driving’ Around on Land

Everybody likes to give The Simpsons credit for predicting the future. But Futurama deserves some too. Case in point: A new experiment from researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel in which goldfish were tasked with “driving” a vehicle towards a visual target—on land. I.e., they operated version 1.0 of Wernstrom’s “Reverse Scuba Suit” invention.

Gizmodo reported on the experiment out of Israel. In the study, researchers sought to explore how an organism perceives and navigates the space around it. The team wanted to see if the mechanisms that underpin a creature’s ability to navigate its environment are dependent on its brain structure, ecological system, or other such factors.

In the experiment, outlined in the journal Behavioral Brain Research, the researchers explored spatial navigation behavior. Specifically via a “domain transfer” methodology. That is, the researchers took one species and embedded it in the environment of another’s. In this case, they pushed the idea “to the limit” by studying a fish’s navigation abilities in a terrestrial environment.

A goldfish drives by controlling a fish tank on wheels thanks to a combination of a LIDAR, a computer, and a camera. These driving goldfish were part of a study.
Ben-Gurion University 

In the video above, the researchers demonstrate how they executed their experiment. In essence, they built a wheeled fish-tank contraption combined with a computer, camera, and LIDAR. The LIDAR targets objects with lasers and measures their distances. The team then “trained” the goldfish to drive the Fish Operated Vehicle or FOV; coupling the fish’s location inside its tank to the FOV’s location in its terrestrial environment.

As for the results? The participant goldfish were indeed able to drive the FOV to reach their targets. Regardless of their starting point in the tank or the tank’s starting point in a room, the fish succeeded. A surprising outcome, perhaps. Although understandable as meeting their targets meant a food pellet for the fish drivers. The fish were apt at their task. In fact, they even figured out how to ignore dummy targets that didn’t offer pellet rewards.

A GIF from Futurama that helps to explain how a fish controls a tank on wheels thanks to a combination of a LIDAR, a computer, and a camera.
Fox / Comedy Central

“These results demonstrate how a fish was able to transfer its space representation and navigation skills to a wholly different terrestrial environment, thus supporting the hypothesis that the former possess a universal quality that is species-independent,” the researchers say in their study. Meaning organisms, in general, can navigate even wildly unfamiliar environments due to their neurobiology. Although we’re not sure if any of them are truly up to Wernstrom’s stick-fetching standards yet.

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