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State of Mind: A Fish Called Dale Junior

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If you thought teaching calves to use a pottie was crazy (see “State of Mind” in The Bridge, Jan. 12, 2022), now comes this news item. Scientists at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel are teaching goldfish to drive. 

Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Lare, the Israelis are level-headed and logical people. Why would they be spending hard-earned research shekels on teaching fish to drive in the middle of the Negev desert?” 

Answer: I have no earthly idea!

The experiment goes like this. The researchers acquired six goldfish, I assume by playing the balloon-dart game on the midway at the Israel State Fair and brought to the lab in little water-filled plastic bags. They placed the goldfish into custom-made Plexiglas tanks. There was one female goldfish, three males, and two fish in which the sex was not determined (probably because goldfish can be shy and they hid behind the little submerged castle). 

The Plexiglas tanks were mounted on motorized bases. The tanks were equipped with sensors that could detect when a fish swam near any of the four outward facing walls of the tank. This information was transmitted to the motorized base, which would move in the direction of that tank wall. The motorized tanks were, of course, dubbed Fish-Operated Vehicles, or FOVs, because scientists love catchy abbreviations.

Each FOV was placed in the middle of a room. A pink board was mounted on one wall of the room. When a goldfish managed to get its FOV to the wall with the pink board — you guessed it — it was rewarded with a treat. (Does the name “Pavlov” ring a bell here? Oops! Sorry. That dad joke just slipped out.) The report does not specify what the treats were, but they probably involved some tasty dessicated mealworms.

The goldfish received driver’s training in about a dozen 30-minute sessions. In the first few sessions the fish managed to be successful only about two times per session. By the end of training they were making about 17 successful trips per session.

For reasons that were not explained, the goldfish were named after the characters in Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice.” According to one researcher, some fish were faster than others. She said that Mr. Darcy was the fastest, but that could possibly be just a reflection of her feelings about the character. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Darcy was from the 19th century, when people still moved about in horse-drawn carriages. I prefer to think of that fish in a more modern American context, the piscine version of NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The old urban myth that goldfish are dumb as posts with attention spans of only 3 seconds was totally shattered when the researchers shook things up for their scaly little drivers by doing things such as moving the starting place for the tank from the center of the room, by moving the pink board to a different wall, or by adding different colored boards to the walls in addition to the pink board. The goldfish still drove to the pink board.

One goldfish was even allowed to roam about the entire building and was eventually stopped when it maneuvered down a corridor and tried to make a break for it.

Such abilities on the part of goldfish may seem astounding to the readers of the journal “Behavioural Brain Research,” in which the study results were initially reported (Feb. 15, 2022). But they should really be of no surprise to anyone who has seen the film “Finding Nemo,” in which a little clownfish named Nemo is captured on his reef and ends up in an office aquarium in Sydney, Australia, and his dad Marlin, with the help of whales, sea turtles, and even a great white shark named Bruce, who has taken a pledge to be vegetarian, navigates across the vast Pacific Ocean in search of his son. All of the fish in “Finding Nemo,” with the exception of a bright blue surgeonfish named Dory, had no trouble remembering things.

Of more importance is the light into which these findings cast us human drivers. Let’s face it. These goldfish were navigating what the scientists termed a “terrestrial” environment without the aid of GPS in dashboard displays. That puts to shame drivers of UPS and FEDEX trucks, who, if the many reports on Front Porch Forums are to be believed, often are unable to find addresses even with the aid of very expensive satellites in stationary earth orbit.

Also of note, none of the fish stopped and asked for directions. While that may not be unusual for the goldfish who were males, it possibly indicates the great confidence with which the female goldfish was able to navigate the “’terrestrial’ environment” outside her tank without input from anyone.  

And not one of the goldfish tried to drive while talking on a cell phone. That alone is a sure sign of great intelligence.

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