Canterbury researcher hooks award for study of native fish

24 November 2022

A University of Canterbury biologist reeled in by the genetic quirks of the native pipefish has won an award for her work.

  • Sarah Flanagan

    2022 University of Canterbury Council Early and Emerging Career Researcher Award winner Senior Lecturer Dr Sarah Flanagan.

Sustainable Development Goal number 14, Life below water

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) School of Biological Sciences Senior Lecturer Dr Sarah Flanagan has won the 2022 UC Council Early and Emerging Career Researcher Award.

Dr Flanagan says she is humbled by the recognition of her research and the award which includes a research prize of $10,000.

“It is wonderful to be appreciated and have the importance of my work recognised by the University.”

Dr Flanagan and her team hope to resolve major evolutionary questions while contributing to understanding the resilience of New Zealand’s native species in the face of increasing global threats including environmental changes.

Her research focusses on genetic variation in the pipefish of Aotearoa, a native New Zealand marine fish. The pipefish is related to the seahorse, with similar facial features but with a long slim body, and like the seahorse, the female pipefish lays her eggs on the male who carries them to term. While an anomaly in nature, Dr Flanagan says it’s not the only variation worth our attention. 

“Living within the same seagrass bed are pipefish where the male and female are both the same dull colours, while other species sharing the same bed have a brightly coloured male and a drabber female. We want to know why,” says Dr Flanagan.

A primary focus of Dr Flanagan’s research is to understand and explain why variations amongst species exist and what that means in response to predation and environmental changes.

“It is not just the direct impact on the pipefish. They are at the bottom of the food chain with predation from commercially important species.  The survival of this species has both an environmental and a commercial impact. It helps direct conservation management and helps us respond to climate change and human development along coastlines,” says Dr Flanagan.

Through learning about the habitats where pipefish can be found in Aotearoa – which includes Akaroa Harbour - Dr Flanagan connected with Ōnuku Rūnanga.

“Beyond connecting over the habitat and the animals found alongside pipefish, I have also led educational outreach events with the local rangatahi,” she said.

Dr Flanagan is now collaborating on a project to assess the state of knowledge about the marine environment in Akaroa Harbour, with a goal to identify and co-develop future research efforts with Ōnuku leaders.

Already two years into the project, which received a Marsden Fund Te Pūtea Rangahau Fast-Start Grant in 2019, and with another two years until completion, Dr Flanagan says it has been a challenging time to undertake the work.

“This is a team effort. I couldn’t have achieved what I have achieved without the help of my research students, both past and present and my colleagues and collaborators.

“Overcoming the challenges of Covid-19 has meant we have had to become adaptive. I’ve been working with PhD students in collaborative labs across the world. Covid also limited what we could do in the field.”

Her research is regarded as interdisciplinary, collaborative, and impactful, with this year’s award highlighting the importance of scientific research in Aotearoa and globally.

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