There are two goldfish in a tank. One asks the other, “do you know how to drive this thing?”
While we can’t take credit for the joke (thanks, Punstoppable), Snopes can answer the question. According to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Behavioral Brain Research, goldfish can indeed be trained to “steer” a fish tank on wheels, otherwise known as a fish-operated vehicle (FOV).
A more than 1-minute video showing the goldfish in its tank was posted to the YouTube page belonging to Ben-Gurion University in Israel on Jan. 5, 2022.
Following publication of the study, the video was shared to Reddit — where it received more than 3,200 upvotes — while the findings were covered by publications like Huffpost and Live Science.
“Navigation is a critical ability for animal survival and is important for food foraging, finding shelter, seeking mates and a variety of other behaviors,” wrote the study authors.
The study is based on a theory known as domain transfer methodology in which a species, in this case a goldfish, is placed into a foreign environment like a lab room or parking lot and made to cope with an otherwise familiar task, like finding its way to food.
“For this purpose, we trained goldfish to use a 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,” wrote the researchers.
Fish in the study were placed in a tank, which was put on a wheeled platform, and placed in various starting position in a room. The vehicle itself was made of a chassis-platform configuration that was made to hold a water tank. Four small engines were connected to four wheels mounted on each side of the FOV. Researchers placed just 15 centimeters of water within the tank to avoid wave creation when the FOV moved.
But how might a fish “steer” a vehicle without hands or feet? It wasn’t telepathy. Rather, a camera streamed a video signal to a computer that detected a fish’s location and orientation in the water tank. When a fish swam one way, this computer system matched the movement of the FOV.
Each goldfish was then made to direct its FOV toward a designated spot on a small section of wall colored pink. If the fish made it to the pink rectangle, it was given a reward of fish food. When the vehicle touched the pink corrugated board, a single pellet was dropped into the fish’s tank.
Regardless of their starting point in the room, all six fish were able to operate the vehicle, explore their environment, and correct their courses to ultimately reach their starting point.
“The study hints that navigational ability is universal rather than specific to the environment. Second, it shows that goldfish have the cognitive ability to learn a complex task in an environment completely unlike the one they evolved in,’ said Shachar Givon, a Ph.D. student in the life sciences department in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, in a news release.
“As anyone who has tried to learn how to ride a bike or to drive a car knows, it is challenging at first.”
Curious about how Snopes' writers verify information and craft their stories for public consumption? We've collected some posts that help explain how we do what we do. Happy reading and let us know what else you might be interested in knowing.
47 Hilarious Goldfish Puns - Punstoppable. https://punstoppable.com/goldfish-puns. Accessed 7 Jan. 2022.
305FUN. “Goldfish Trained to Drive a Wheeled Platform That Reacts to the Fish’s Movement.” R/Interestingasfuck, 3 Jan. 2022, www.reddit.com/r/interestingasfuck/comments/rv4ntt/goldfish_trained_to_drive_a_wheeled_platform_that/.
Givon, Shachar, et al. “From Fish out of Water to New Insights on Navigation Mechanisms in Animals.” Behavioural Brain Research, vol. 419, no. 113711, Feb. 2022. Ben-Gurion University Research Portal, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2021.113711.
“From Fish out of Water to New Insights on Navigation Mechanisms in Animals.” Behavioural Brain Research, vol. 419, Feb. 2022, p. 113711. ScienceDirect, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2021.113711.
Cameron Duke. “Wild Video Shows Goldfish ‘driving’ a Water-Filled Car in Weird Experiment.” Livescience.Com, 6 Jan. 2022, https://www.livescience.com/fish-drive-cars.
“Scientists Teach Goldfish To Drive ‘Fish-Operated Vehicle.’” HuffPost, 6 Jan. 2022, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/goldfish-driving-study_n_61d606f0e4b0bcd2195acff1.
Yirka, Bob and Phys.org. Goldfish Taught to Drive Little Land Vehicle to Desired Targets. https://phys.org/news/2022-01-goldfish-taught-vehicle-desired.html. Accessed 7 Jan. 2022.
דג זהב נוהג ביבשה. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQ7_6gDx7DI. Accessed 7 Jan. 2022.