Goldfish Are Surprisingly Good Drivers, Study Finds

  • Is a fish a better driver than you? It just might be.

Goldfish aren’t exactly renowned for their intelligence. After all, there’s the pervasive myth of them having memories only two or three seconds long.

That’s not actually true, but the myth’s persistence highlights the fact that we think goldfish are as dumb as a pile of bricks. But why, then, are they better at driving than some people?

A recent study, published in the journal Behavioral Brain Research, has found out that goldfish are surprisingly good drivers. Of course, you can’t just plop a fish behind the wheel of a Ford or a Toyota.

That’s why the researchers built the six goldfish participating in the study their own car, called a Fish Operated Vehicle, or FOV. It’s essentially a fish tank equipped with wheels.

Without hands or feet, the goldfish can’t exactly turn a steering wheel or push pedals. Instead, the FOV has a downward facing camera above the tank that tracks the piloting fish’s movements.

To keep potentially reckless fishy drivers from wrecking the FOV, it also features a sensor to detect nearby walls. If the fish drove within roughly eight inches of a wall, a computer unit would take over and steer the FOV away from collision.

The next research question: can goldfish go to space?

Expert Drivers

The researchers taught each of the six fish to drive the FOV over 30-minute driving lessons. They organized the sessions three times a week, every two days, reported Ars Technica.

To motivate the fish, the scientists placed a pink corrugated board on the ground. If the fish successfully navigated to the target, they received a tasty treat as a reward.

You may not be expecting much from the driving fish. But they very quickly picked up the necessary skills to steer the FOV.

By the end of the study, the goldfish were able to hit the target at least 15 times during every 30 minute session, reported Science. But the researchers were still skeptical about their driving ability.

They suspected that the goldfish — despite their reputation — had simply memorized the route to the target. So, they began to change the starting position of the FOV, move the target around, and adding differently colored dummy targets.

It turns out that you can’t fool a goldfish. Despite the changes to the testing area, the fish reliably navigated the vehicle exactly where it was supposed to go.

No Need for a Map

The scientists didn’t give goldfish a car just for the heck of it. Believe it or not, the study had an actual goal.

According to the researchers, fish have excellent navigational skills in the water around their normal habitat. They wanted to see if they would be able to find their way around as efficiently in a completely unfamiliar environment.

And you can’t get much more unfamiliar to a fish than dry land. Of course, the fish would’ve not been able to get around without some assistance — hence the FOV.

The results of the goldfish driving study, according to the researchers, suggest that they’re nowhere near as dumb as we generally think. They said that the fish’ ability to find their way around indicates that they can understand and form an internal representation of the world around them.

Not only that, the fish were able to do so despite significant interference. After all, they had to deal with the Plexiglass walls of the tank and all the distortion and reflections that introduced to their vision.

Now, the researchers are curious whether they’ll be able to replicate the results by putting terrestrial animals into water. That’s why they’re planning to build tiny submarines for rats.

Not Just Fish

Rats seem like a good candidate for the submarine study. They’re fairly smart and — like the goldfish — they’ve already mastered driving a car.

A separate study from 2019 gave rats tiny cars to drive around in. And since they’re able to grab thing, these cars actually had a handlebar.

By grabbing one of three small copper bars, the rat car’s engine would start up. The rat was then able to steer its path by touching one bar to turn left, another to turn right, and a third to go straight.

The 11 male rats that participated in the study all learned to drive the ratmobile. However, five of them lived in an environment with toys and other activities, and they turned out to become better drivers.

The purpose of this study was to measure stress levels in the rats. The results showed that going for a drive helped the rats destress.

This means that even rats enjoy a leisurely Sunday drive.

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