One of TV’s most famous sea creatures, SpongeBob SquarePants, is a notoriously awful driver. But new research suggests that real-life water dwellers aren’t so bad behind the wheel.
In a new experiment, six goldfish learned to drive a tank of water on wheels around a room. This feat of steering suggests that fishes’ navigational abilities hold up even on land. That, in turn, hints that the internal sense of direction in fish has something in common with that of land animals. Researchers shared their findings February 15 in Behavioural Brain Research.
The study was done at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. That’s in Beer-Sheva, Israel. The fish-mobile was armed with a camera to watch a fish inside the water tank. Whenever the fish swam near one of the tank’s walls, facing outward, the vehicle drove that way. (Watch a quick video showing the fish-mobile in action here.)
Goldfish learned how to drive during about a dozen 30-minute lessons. Researchers trained each fish to cruise from the center of a room toward a pink board on one wall. They did this by giving the fish a treat whenever it reached the pink board. During the first lesson, fish averaged about 2.5 successful trips to the target. During their final lesson, fish averaged about 17.5 successful trips.
The swimmers could still reach the pink board when starting from different spots around the room. And when the researchers tried tricks — placing decoy boards on other walls or moving the pink board across the room — the fish were not fooled. They still drove to the pink board to receive their treat.
“That was pretty conclusive that the fish actually navigate,” says Ohad Ben-Shahar. He’s a computer scientist who studies neuroscience. He also is a coauthor of the new study.
Kelly Lambert was “not completely surprised, but still intrigued” by the fish’s driving skills. Lambert is a behavioral neuroscientist. She works at the University of Richmond in Virginia. In her lab, she has taught rats to drive toy cars. Teaching fish to navigate outside their natural habitat takes such driving studies to the next level, she says. “I love the fish-out-of-water idea.”
Lambert wonders which animals make the best drivers. “I think we need an international race between the rats and the goldfish.”