Picture this: A goldfish swimming in a square tank on wheels as it rolls deliberately from one side of a room to the other.
It’s not a scene from a children’s book or a futuristic movie. It’s an animal behavior experiment at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where researchers have successfully trained several goldfish to operate a robotic vehicle in an effort to explore whether their species is capable of navigating on land.
And it turns out they just might be, according to findings published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.
“The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment,” said Shachar Givon, a Ph.D. student and one of the paper’s authors. “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.”
The team set out to explore whether animals’ innate navigational abilities are universal or restricted to their natural environments, the scientists explained in a press release.
“It goes without saying that fish, in general, are not naturally equipped to explore terrestrial environments,” the study cautions.
To get around this obstacle, researchers created the “fish operated vehicle,” a set of wheels under the goldfish tank that uses an intricate camera system to record and translate a fish’s movements into navigational directions. The FOV changes its position based on the fish’s movement characteristics, location and orientation in the water tank.
Researchers tasked six goldfish with “driving” the vehicle toward a visual target — a colorful mark on the wall of the experiment room — visible through the clear sides of the tank.
Like any would-be driver, the fish started off with lessons. The researchers tested whether the fish could drive toward the target in return for a food pellet. They conducted multiple 30-minute sessions to see how many times each fish reached the target, how long each drive took and the distance they traveled each time.
After a few days of training, the fish were able to navigate to the target — even if they hit a wall along the way or started their drive from a new location. Notably, they weren’t fooled by decoy targets set out by the researchers, either. Here’s what that looked like.
“The findings … 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,” the study concludes. “This hints at universality in the way space is represented across environments.”
Still, scientists say more research is needed to extend these findings to more complex scenery, like open terrestrial environments. And they say future studies should test this methodology on land animals in aquatic environments “to reach more decisive conclusions.”
It appears this study was not the first or last of its kind. As the authors note, rodents, dogs and even other fish have taken the wheel in previous experiments.
This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.