Scientists Defy God, Teach Goldfish to Drive on Land

The goldfish were pretty good at piloting a Fish-Operated Vehicle, or FOV, the scientists report in a new study.
January 4, 2022, 6:22pm
Scientists Defy God, Teach Goldfish to Drive on Land
Image: Ben-Gurion University via Twitter/@ronen_segev
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After a long day at work, the modern goldfish no longer has to take public transportation home—it can drive via a fish-operated vehicle (FOV), according to new research published in Behavioural Brain Research.

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Documented in a report published in the February 2022 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, set out to unpack how well goldfish can navigate terrestrial environments when tasked with the right tools. They created a small camera-equipped fish tank on wheels, which they call an FOV, and put six goldfish in it, one at a time. 

Over a number of 30-minute sessions, they pointed the device toward a visual target and rewarded the fish with food each time they reached it, recorded the number of times the fish hit the target, how long it took, and how far the fish traveled along the way. Incredibly, the goldfish seemingly took to their new ability to drive on land. 

Videos of these sessions shared by study co-author Ronen Segev went viral on Twitter on Monday, and were met with an array of dad jokes about fish learning to drive. This is not the first study to capture “fish-machine interactions,” the paper notes, but to Segev, the work supports broader understanding of how species move through environments not meant for them.  

“These results demonstrate that the goldfish was able to transfer to a wholly different terrestrial environment and navigate successfully,” Segev said in his Twitter thread. 

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The fish managed to avoid dead ends and correct inaccuracies over the course of these trials, Segev notes in his tweets. Indeed, the study notes that all six fish got better at meeting their targets with time, suggesting that goldfish are capable of learning from novel environments and improving at the efficiency with which they move through them.

The team’s paper underscores not only that fish can drive, but that fish can drive on land—an ecosystem they’re not evolved to be able to understand or move through fluently. The findings contribute to a broader scientific arena the researchers call “domain transfer methodology,” or the study of how one animal species navigates the environment of a different one. 

Screengrab: Givon et. al.

Goldfish navigate land very well, it turns out. This means mammals and birds might be equipped to navigate unfamiliar environments, too, the authors speculate. All three share similar brain formations in the region of the hippocampus (the lobe controlling learning and memory) that operates navigation. But navigation is complicated, and can vary between species and environments—how an animal views the space it’s operating within likely varies between species and spaces, the paper notes. This study represents a step toward elucidating these nuances.

“Further studies are needed to extend these findings to more complex scenery such as an open terrestrial environment,” the authors say in the paper. “The findings nevertheless suggest that the way space is represented in the fish brain and the strategies it uses may be as successful in a terrestrial environment as they are in an aquatic one.”