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Fish-driven car offers new insights on navigation mechanisms in animals

Fish navigation capabilities have been studied extensively. It has been demonstrated that fishes can carry navigational tasks of different complexities in water. However, it is not clear if these abilities differ from what mammals and birds can accomplish in their natural environments.

A recent paper proposes a domain transfer methodology to study this question. And also creating a car to test what are fish driving abilities on land. Jokes aside, this is a serious research.

Extreme but original experiment of navigation: Fish-Operated Vehicle (FOV) in action. Image credit: Ben Gurion University of the Negev

The idea is to take one species from its environment and challenge it to perform behavioral tasks in a different environment. A Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV) was created for this aim. It is a self-propelled platform controlled by the fish in an onboard water tank. When the fish is near one of the water tank walls and facing outwards, the FOV is propelled in this direction.

The findings show that the fish could control the FOV and solve navigation tasks in the terrestrial environment. That suggests the universality of space representation and navigation strategies between different species.

Navigation is a critical ability for animal survival and is important for food foraging, finding shelter, seeking mates and a variety of other behaviors. Given their fundamental role and universal function in the animal kingdom, it makes sense to explore whether space representation and navigation mechanisms are dependent on the species, ecological system, brain structures, or whether they share general and universal properties. One way to explore this issue behaviorally is by domain transfer methodology, where one species is embedded in another species’ environment and must cope with an otherwise familiar (in our case, navigation) task. Here we push this idea to the limit by studying the navigation ability of a fish in a terrestrial environment. For this purpose, we trained goldfish to use a Fish Operated Vehicle (FOV), a wheeled terrestrial platform that reacts to the fish’s movement characteristics, location and orientation in its water tank to change the vehicle’s; i.e., the water tank’s, position in the arena. The fish were tasked to “drive” the FOV towards a visual target in the terrestrial environment, which was observable through the walls of the tank, and indeed were able to operate the vehicle, explore the new environment, and reach the target regardless of the starting point, all while avoiding dead-ends and correcting location inaccuracies. These results demonstrate how a fish was able to transfer its space representation and navigation skills to a wholly different terrestrial environment, thus supporting the hypothesis that the former possess a universal quality that is species-independent.

Research paper: Shachar Givon, Matan Samina, Ohad Ben-Shahar, Ronen Segev, “From fish out of water to new insights on navigation mechanisms in animals”, 2022. Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0166432821005994


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