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Lights, Camera, Action: Cue the Goldfish

Biologist Scott McRobert, Ph.D., likes studying fish behavior. He has published research on shoaling, or grouping behavior, in zebra fish, molly fish, painted tetras, killifish and female fighting fish. Soon, and for the first time, he will begin a study of Carassius auratus, or the pet shop variety of goldfish.

McRobert, professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pa., wonders about goldfish shoaling behavior. “There is literature suggesting that goldfish shoal, and I feel fairly confident that they will, but it's nice not to know,” says McRobert. “It makes the study more intriguing.”

But McRobert didn’t choose goldfish as an experimental animal just to satisfy his curiosity. “I chose them because of their size and coloration,” he says. “Since they are brightly colored, they will show up well on Fish Cam.”

Fish Cam is much more than just a camera filming fish. “It is actually an exciting and creative way to teach science to school children,” says McRobert, who has set up a 20-gallon tank that is monitored by a wireless Internet camera, which he has dubbed “Fish Cam.” Its online site gives elementary to high school teachers and students an opportunity to participate in the behavioral research McRobert and his university students perform in his Biodiversity Lab.

On March 1, the first of the experiments begin, and students from Friends Central School in Wynnewood, Pa., and Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., will be watching as the goldfish make their on-camera entrance in the tank, which has been divided into three separate chambers. Anyone can see Fish Cam, and participate in the experiments at
It is best viewed with a Firefox browser.
McRobert has developed a calendar of experiments to run throughout the spring, and hopes that eventually, Fish Cam will become a regular resource for teaching science around the world.

Karen Snetselaar, Ph.D., chair and professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s, is the director of SJU’s National Science Foundation GeoKids LINKS – Learning Involving Neighborhoods, Kids and Science – program, a collaboration with the Wagner Free Institute of Science that brings hands-on science learning activities to underserved school children. Snetselaar looks forward to incorporating Fish Cam into the GeoKids program for Philadelphia school children. “Fish Cam is a nice use of technology that is not just a gimmick,” she says. “It enables school children to do real science – the same research that Saint Joseph’s students are doing.”

McRobert says the experimental design is fairly simple. For two weeks, students come online once each day and observe the fish for 600 seconds, or 10 minutes. In total, the students will gather data on 10 test fish.

“We start the study with a shoal of five fish, and each day at 9 a.m. EST – including weekends – we will add a new test fish,” he says. “The idea of the experiments is to determine the mean amount of time that the goldfish spend swimming near a shoal of several goldfish in an end chamber, and compare that to the time they spend swimming near an empty chamber. This comparison tells us whether or not goldfish shoal.”

People often think that any group of fish is a school, and are confused by the term shoal. McRobert says, “all schools are shoals, but not all shoals are schools.

“A school is a group of fish that swim together in a synchronized fashion, moving in the same direction, at the same speed and turning simultaneously,” McRobert notes. “To be called a school, a group of fish must demonstrate all of these rather complex behavioral patterns. The word shoal, on the other hand, is the term for any simple social grouping of fish.”

Shoaling behavior is beneficial to fish, McRobert says. “It offers numerous benefits to individual fish, including increased success in finding food, access to potential mates, and increased protection from predators.”

The first experiment is designed to answer the question do goldfish shoal? Ensuing weeks will determine whether they discriminate between shoals on the basis of shoal size, and whether they discriminate between shoals of fish of different coloration. McRobert and his team will help participating teachers and students analyze their data.

Teachers interested in learning more about running Fish Cam experiments are invited to visit the Web site at


Patricia Allen | Newswise Science News
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