January 17, 2022

Invasion of the Robofish!

Graphical Abstract, Robot Fish Research.

Robofish may soon be patrolling a river near you. Seriously.

Problem: Sometimes humans mess with nature to try to make life better, only to see their efforts backfire. This was the case with mosquito fish. To many people, these creatures must have sounded too good: a fish that feasts on mosquito larvae, thus eating into the population of the bothersome, disease-spreading insects.

So people around the world began introducing the fish, Gambusia holbrooki, into local rivers—a century ago in Australia.

Unfortunately, we soon learned that mosquito fish also like to nibble on the tails of native freshwater fish and on tadpoles, leaving them to die and creating whole new ecological headaches. In Australia, mosquito fish are considered one of the biggest freshwater threats today.

Removing mosquito fish wholesale could harm other wildlife and would "likely to be impractical and ethically questionable." Fishy ethics.

Of course, one obvious solution would be to introduce some bigger fish that eats mosquito fish, but then there’s that song about an old lady who swallowed a fly, and then a spider to eat the fly, then a bird, a cat, a dog, and eventually a cow … So hopefully no one’s tried that.

Coming to the rescue, though, a team of scientists and engineers from Australia, the US, and Italy have found a solution: robofish. They have developed a robot fish that mimics the exact movements of the largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), a predator of the mosquito fish.

These fish androids are in fact so terrifying, they completely transform the behavior of mosquito fish, rendering them unable to reproduce.

Now that may seem like hitting below the belt, but these are only fish, they don’t have feelings, right? And face it, fish sex can’t be that good anyhow.

Importantly, other fish in many places do not recognize the largemouth bass, meaning they are not affected. To them, the robofish will be a friend and protector, a sort of playground monitor who intervenes when bullies chew on their tails.

The research was published in the journal iScience in December. As with many such studies, the technical explanation is more fun than the news write-up:

"Here, we explore the potential of biologically inspired, interactive robotic predators to selectively alter the behavior of eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki)—a model species in ecology and evolution, and one of the world's worst invasive species …"

The team sees wider uses for their robot fish, opening “new frontiers for robotics in ecology, evolution, and biocontrol research.”

Of course, those Aussies a century ago thought they were pretty smart, so for all our current brilliance, we may see a hundred years from now headlines like: “Robofish Learn to Reproduce” and “World Salmon Supply Threatened by Abstinence as Robofish Mimic Sharks.”

By John Sailors
OffKey Blog, Jan. 17, 2022

Copyright 2022, by John Sailors.

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