Fish play video game in new behaviour study

bluegill sunfish The bluegill sunfish were put off by the computer-generated prey when it moved in groups

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Researchers have used a video game projected into a fish tank to study the behaviour of predatory bluegill sunfish.

The team at Princeton University developed a simulation based on the type of prey favoured by the species.

The simple "game" featured red dots which moved and swarmed in different ways against a translucent screen.

They found that the fish were less likely to try to attack the dots when they moved in a group formation.

The research has been published in the Science journal.

Senior researcher Dr Iain Couzin is from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University.

"By creating an immersive video game for the fish we were able to have complete control over the parameters," he told BBC News.

"Trying to do this experiment with natural grouping prey items, it would have been impossible to understand or control what was going on."

Simple prey

The size and colour of the simple prey graphics were carefully designed, he said.

"An undergraduate student worked the entire summer on the exact type of dot to use. We tested out a whole range of different types of dots.

"We knew they liked to target slightly red objects, we knew the speed of their natural prey.

"As far as we know the fish were not aware that (our graphics) were just little dots."

He said it was important that the game had been coded so that the movement of the dots did not become predictable.

"In any computer game if you have one type of enemy it's easy to learn," said Mr Couzin.

"It would be fascinating to understand whether the fish learned to play the game better over time."

The team is now looking at using 3D technology to create a more photorealistic world in which to study fish behaviour.

"We're developing an automating tracking system so we can track the position of their eyes and reconstruct a virtual world of prey items, using conventional projectors," said Mr Couzin.

"It will be a fully 3D virtual world to these organisms."

Cat and mouse
Game for cat promotional image Cat owners can buy games which allow their pet to chase a virtual mouse

The study is not the first time researchers have used gaming technology to research animal behaviour.

Earlier this year a team at the University of Oulu in Finland used a virtual reality system to study cockroaches placed in a simulated forest.

"Virtual reality's key benefit is having conditions that enable naturalistic behaviour but, for example, are constrained enough to record individual nerve cells while an animal is behaving," lead researcher Mikko Vähäsöyrinki told the website Popular Mechanics.

Games designed to be used by cats have even been put on sale to make money from tablet computer owners.

They were released after a series of online videos went viral showing felines swiping at the touchscreen devices.

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