Robotic fish designed to terrorize invasive species passes initial tests

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It may look like a fish …

GIOVANNI POLVERINO

A robot that looks and swims like a largemouth bass is effective in preventing mosquitoes from devouring vulnerable tadpoles, according to a study published on December 16 by iScience. Since mosquitoes have become a global pest over the past 100 years, the robotic fish could be big news for ecosystems around the world threatened by invasive species.

How did the mosquito become a problem for native fish species around the world? Of course, this is the fault of humans.

In the early 1900s, mosquitoes were a problem. The invention of the modern mosquito repellent was still half a century, therefore a species called Gambusia affinis, known to prey on the larvae of annoying insects, has been introduced to regions around the world as a mosquito control agent. As you might expect, this is how the mosquito fish got its name.

The problem is, mosquitoes don’t just eat mosquito larvae. These small fish have a robust appetite for larvae of all kinds, including tadpoles for the rare and economically important species of fish and amphibians native to streams where mosquito fish have been introduced. They’ve been a problem ever since, and now scientists may have found a solution.

Scientists built the robot to look and move like the mosquito’s natural predator: the largemouth bass. The robot uses “computer vision” to spot mosquitoes as they approach tadpoles, then the robot moves to scare off predators.

“Invasive species are a huge problem in the world and are the second leading cause of biodiversity loss”, noted the study’s first author, Giovanni Polverino of the University of Western Australia. “I hope our approach of using robotics to reveal the weaknesses of an incredibly efficient pest will open the door to improving our biological control practices and addressing invasive species. “

To conduct the study, the scientists set up tanks containing mosquitoes and tadpoles, and then introduced the robot. They found the robot to be effective in scaring away mosquitoes. The anxiety the robot created in the mosquitoes altered their behavior, physiology and fertility, making them essentially less effective at preying on tadpoles over the five weeks of the study. Mosquitoes exposed to the robot focused more on escape than on reproduction.

“Although successful in thwarting mosquitoes, the robotic fish grown in the laboratory are not ready to be released into the wild,” noted lead author of the study, Maurizio Porfiri of New York University.

So while the study’s results are promising, the team still has some technical challenges to overcome. But this new approach to tackling invasive marine life could be the start to the end of the global mosquito puzzle.

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