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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pet fish have more on the ball than we thought

Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Teach a fish to play football and ... well, now you really could be on to something. A father and son team have trained a pet goldfish to "carry" a football, "shoot" a soccer ball into a net, even "dance" the limbo. Believe it or not, it is easy and fun to teach your pet fish to swim through hoops and tunnels, do the limbo, eat from your hand. Hey, we have done it with bigger fish like dolphins and whales, right?

"This Isaac is a genius!" Dean Pomerleau says as he works with his newest student, a betta, or Siamese fighting fish, whose full name is Isaac Newton. Just one day after Mr. Pomerleau acquired him (to replace a fish by the same name who expired), Isaac is swimming through a hoop to get to a bit of food his trainer is offering via a homemade feeding wand.

This "positive reinforcement" technique, as used to train other animals, is what Mr. Pomerleau, 41, and his 9-year-old son, Kyle, began experimenting with about a year ago when Kyle came home with two goldfish he'd won at a school fair. Noticing that the fish recognized and responded to them as they approached their tank, the guys began researching fish intelligence and found lots of scientific evidence that fish are smarter than most people think.

Mr. Pomerleau -- actually, Dr. Pomerleau -- is pretty smart, too, having earned his computer science Ph.D. at some university and co-founder and president of a company, which makes car crash warning devices, he's worked for 16 years in the field of outdoor robot perception and intelligent vehicles. Kyle is a smart fourth-grader at Richland Elementary School. Both are at heart, they agree, engineers.

 They bought a fantail goldfish they dubbed Albert, for Albert Einstein, and quickly trained it to eat out of their hands. That's not so unusual. But then, using a Starbucks straw, a rubber-band, a toothpick and other materials, Mr. Pomerleau made the feeding wand. They used that to reward Albert whenever his actions came close to what they wanted him to do. It didn't take Albert long to learn to swim through a homemade hoop, then through a tunnel, even under a horizontal bar. Kyle had the idea to train him to push a toy soccer ball into a toy goal and push a toy football, even "fetch" the ball to them from the floor. Now he gets fired up to play when placed in his performance tank, which they surrounded with green artificial turf.

Mr. Pomerleau, who doesn't expect to give up his day job, says, "It's been a fun project for the two of us," but it's not just frivolous. He's a longtime vegan who doesn't eat any animal products. Kyle now doesn't eat fish. They both believe that helping show that fish are sentient might help convince people to treat them better.

See guys, told you fish are pretty bright. Maybe in the near future, we can teach sharks not to bite us.


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