Robot fish accepted as one of the pack by real fish

By Chelsea Whyte on June 8, 2012 2:38 PM EDT

zebrafish
This smiley-faced robot fish drew the attention of its real tank-mates. (Photo: Institute of Physics)

Fish seem to be easily fooled. Researchers from Polytechnic Institute of New York University and Instituto Superiore di Sanitá, Italy, created a robotic fish, engineered to mimic the tail movements of real zebrafish and painted to resemble their striped markings, which effectively attracted real zebrafish to interact with it.

The imposter was 6 inches long, about twice the size of zebrafish, and was given a rounder body to mimic a pregnant female, which both male and female fish prefer to be around.

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To test whether the zebrafish would accept this fake into, the researchers used a tank separated into three compartments using Plexiglass. The tank held either groups or single fish in the center area. On either side, the researchers introduced either a single fish, a group of fish, the robotic fish, or left a compartment empty. They tried 16 different combinations with this method, finding that

When the robot was introduced into the tank of living fish, the males swarmed around the robotic female the same way they would a real fish. Although the fish preferred hanging out with each other rather than the robot, when given the choice to be alone or with the mechanical intruder, both individuals and groups of zebrafish accepted the robot as part of their shoal.

Engineered species like this one could potentially be used to help species in the wild avoid dangers like oil spills, or to gather invasive species into a net. Maurizio Porfiri, the author of the study published today in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, said this finding could inspire future robots that are able to actively engage the species they are modeled after.  

"We would like to use these robots for guiding fish away from danger," Maurizio Porfiri, an engineer at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, told MSNBC.

Though the zebrafish didn't prefer the robot over their own kind, the important thing is that the fish were comfortable spending time next to the robot, as long as it was moving. A still robot wasn't attractive to the fish. Though the noise of its motor deterred them a bit, the realistic tail movements made it all the more attractive.

Or maybe it was the smile and the googley eyes.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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