Thanks to science, goldfish can now drive

Story by CBC Kids News • Published 2022-01-17 07:00

Some fish are better drivers than others, scientists say

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When you see a poster on a telephone poll for a missing pet, you usually expect it to be a dog or cat.

Now, theoretically, even your goldfish could run away. Or should we say drive away?

Earlier this month, scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel announced they had trained goldfish to drive what they call a fish-operated vehicle, or FOV, which is basically a fish tank on wheels.

Their findings will be published in February in a scientific journal called Behavioural Brain Research.

The scientists say their study shows that goldfish, and perhaps other animals, may have the ability to navigate environments that are radically different from their own.

This is important, since navigation is crucial to animal survival.

How do you build a vehicle for a fish? 

In order to build the FOV, scientists equipped a common fish tank with four engines, four wheels and a remote sensing technology called lidar.

It used lasers to track the fish as they swam.

a scientist in a room with hardwood floors prepares a goldfish in a tank with wheels

With a little practice, the goldfish learned they could use their bodies to move the fish tank. (Image credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The lidar transmitted its signal to a computer, which tracked the location and orientation of the fish in the water tank.

Whenever the fish moved, the vehicle mirrored that action and moved in the same direction.

Goldfish motivated by treats

The scientists trained the fish much like you would train a dog — using tasty treats.

For each trial, they placed the fish in the water tank, and set up a colourful target on the other side of the room.

The goldfish were confused at first but, as the study went on, they learned they’d get a tasty treat if they drove to the target. (Image credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

When the fish reached the target, a machine dispensed a food pellet into the water for the fish to eat.

This helped motivate the fish to learn to drive the vehicle in order to get the pellet.

With each trial, the fish got better at reaching the target.

Surprisingly fast learners

The scientists said the goldfish were much quicker to catch on than they thought they would be, learning after just a few trials. 

“Surprisingly, it doesn't take the fish a long time to learn how to drive the vehicle,” said researcher Shachar Givon.

“They're confused at first, they don't know what's going on, but they're very quick to realize that there is a correlation between their movement and the movement of the machine that they're in.”

Some goldfish better than others

The researchers also learned that some goldfish were star pupils at driving school and others were flunkies.

A total of six goldfish were part of the study. The researchers say some were better drivers than others. (Image credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

“There were very good fish that were doing excellent,” said biology professor and neuroscientist Ronen Segev, “and there were mediocre fish that showed control of the vehicle but were less proficient in driving it.”

The point is, the fish pulled it off.

Scientists said the most important finding was that the goldfish had the ability to navigate outside their natural environment.

“We humans think of ourselves as very special and many think of fish as primitive, but this is not correct,” said Segev. “There are other very important and very smart creatures.”

Why animals rely on navigation

The scientists say their findings are important because navigation is crucial for animal survival.

Being able to navigate helps animals find food, shelter and mates, among other things.

More research needed

The scientists said more research is needed to see if this navigational ability is present in other animals.

They are curious to see, for example, if land animals could learn to navigate in water with the right equipment.

Finally, they said that their findings are limited to a laboratory space.

The next step is to see if goldfish could navigate a complex terrestrial environment, like a forest or mountain.

Have more questions? We'll look into it for you. Email us at

With files from Reuters
TOP IMAGE CREDIT: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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