© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

Uncovering the world of the wide-bodied pipefish

Ben Ulisse
pipefish fleur 01
A wide-bodied pipefish.  Fleur Van Eyndhoven (Supplied)

A young Kiwi student is leading the research into an elusive fish species, shedding fresh light on one of Darwin's original theories.

You would easily be forgiven for not knowing about the Wide-Bodied Pipefish, a fish found only in shallow water around New Zealand and southern parts of Australia.

Biology masters student Fleur Van Eyndhoven works with these elusive sea creatures, and through her own research she is rewriting Darwin's evolutionary theory.

Van Eyndohevn, who is at University of Canterbury, said the female pipefish developed "ornaments".

These were "showy traits such as colours, patterns and strange body shapes" designed to attract a male.

For many years the ornaments were overlooked, as they were assumed by Charlies Darwin to be non-adaptive; a by-product of male ornaments such as the bright plumage on a peacock or pheasant.

More recent research has proven this is not the case however, as females will develop distinct features as a competitive edge for mating through pressures in their own ecosystems.

The reversals of old gender preconceptions don't just end there. The male pipefish receives the eggs from the female and carries them in his pouch while the lady of the species is free to find another mating partner, something that is present in seahorses.

The tools used to catch and collect these curious ocean dwellers don't differ from what we use to scoop the contents of our fish tanks at home. Van Eyndhoven and her team use equipment they make themselves from materials we might find in our own backyards.

"The equipment is often hand-made, for example we use whitebait netting and a frame made from PVC pipes to catch the fish," Van Eyndhoven said.

The researcher's keen sense of discovery and ingenuity has led her to become the first scientist to be studying this species of fish in New Zealand.