Goldfish are capable of driving cars on land, new study finds

We all know this little bit of proverbial wisdom: Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

But what happens when you teach a goldfish to drive?

Scientists at Ben-Gurion University in Israel are finding out.

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In a delightfully odd new study outlined in the journal Behavioral Brain Research, the researchers set out to explore what happens when you take one species and embed it in the enviroment of another — or, in science jargon, spatial navigation behaviour.

Specifically, the team set out to examine what happens when fish are immersed in a terrestrial environment.

By building a “fish operated vehicle,” or FOV, and teaching six goldfish how to drive, they were able to find out whether a goldfish’s navigational sense translates to land, or whether it’s restricted to water.

The FOVs are essentially a fish tank on wheels, equipped with a computer, camera and a LIDAR — a device that targets objects with lasers and measures their distances. The fish stays immersed in water, where it can breathe, and the tank responds to the fish’s movement. Basically, when the fish swims, the tank moves.

The researchers then created a series of challenges for the fish. If they were able to navigate their fishmobile to the intended target, they were rewarded with food pellets.

A screemgrab shows a breakdown of the fishmobile's components.

A breakdown of the fishmobile's components.

Courtesy / Ben-Gurion University

As time went on, and the fish proved they were able to drive the FOV, the team made the task harder by changing the starting point of the vehicle.

Eventually, the fish even learned to ignore dummy targets that didn’t offer a food reward.

Maybe fish are smarter than we give them credit for?

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.

“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.”

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Givon told LiveScience that he hopes to one day set the fish free in a natural environment to see how well they can navigate a less-contrived situation.

“We’re looking forward to fish crawling all over campus,” Givon said.

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