A team of Israeli scientists from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel, built a Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV) and taught six goldfish to control it and navigate within an entirely foreign environment. While it almost sounds like a Dr. Seuss book, it was an actual experiment to explore animal behavior.
The Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV) is a wheeled terrestrial platform that reacts to the fish’s movement characteristics, location, and orientation in its water tank to change the vehicle’s; i.e., the water tank’s position in the arena. The fish position within the tank was monitored by a microcomputer-connected downward-facing camera, which was mounted on the end of a pole extending up from the FOV.
The FOV was composed of a chassis measuring 40×40×19 cm that housed the platform on which the water tank was placed. Underneath the platform, four engines (Brushed DC motors) connected to four Omni wheels were mounted on four sides of the metal skeleton. A Perspex water tank was placed (35×35×28 cm) on the platform so that the water level reached 15 cm. A relatively shallow water level of 15 cm was selected to reduce surface waves while the FOV was moving.
The experiment was started by placing the fish in the water tank of the FOV. The vehicle started out in the middle of the arena or otherwise, as stated. The researchers translate the fish’s movements into forward and back and side to side directions to the wheels.
The team tested whether the fish could drive the vehicle towards a target in return for a food pellet reward which was identical to the regular fish food. By doing so, they discovered that a goldfish’s navigational ability supersedes its watery environs.
They also 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. Moreover, they were able to do so even if the team was interrupted in the middle by hitting a wall, and they were not fooled by false targets placed by the researchers.
“The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment. 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,” says Shachar Givon, a Ph.D. student in the Life Sciences Department in the Faculty of Natural Sciences.