Biomimicry in Design: The Confederate Zebrafish




In social science, researchers sometimes enlist a “confederate” to participate in an experiment with a subject. The confederate is an actor who, for example, intentionally refuses to comply in a situation or (more notoriously) pretends to be in pain as the subject dials up the electricity.

But what do you do when you want to study animal behaviors?

 3D-printed robotic zebrafish is designed to study behavior

Working with a new 3D platform that made their biomimetic robot “swim” like a real fish, NYU Tandon researchers found that zebrafish were attracted to the moving 3D models but not to 2D or stationary ones.

 That’s the challenge one group at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering took on recently. Using a combination of robotics and 3D printing, they attempted to create a confederate zebrafish that would convince live zebrafish of their authenticity.

 The team devised a controllable, customizable robotic platform to accurately study freshwater fish behavior. The system maneuvers biologically inspired 3D-printed zebrafish replicas to mimic the swimming patterns of real fish.

Results were successful. The team introduced the live zebrafish in the middle section of a three-compartment experimental tank with the robotic fish and an empty section on either side. The researchers contrasted the response of live fish to the 3D-moving replica, a 2D-moving replica, a static replica, a transparent replica, and a non-moving rod.

Their findings showed that fish were attracted to a robot that mimicked both the appearance and the motion of real fish, and this attraction was lost when either differed.

Of course, that leads one to wonder why researchers work so hard to psych out minnows. 

It turns out that zebrafish are highly versatile and increasingly taking the place of more complex animals in behavioral studies. Understanding their social behavior may help researchers explore mechanisms behind human disorders like anxiety, addiction, autism, and schizophrenia.

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