Who We Are
Dr Barbara Wueringer
Barbara is the founder, director and lead scientist of SARA. She is a zoologist specialized on the behaviour, sensory ecology and biology of elasmobranch fishes. Barbara first fell in love with sharks when she volunteered at the Bimini Biological Field Station, Bahamas. For her Masters she worked on the sensory biology of two species of shovelnose ray. This work got her interested in the shark like rays, which include sawfish. Barbara received her PhD from the University of Queensland, for a project on the sensory ecology and feeding behaviour of freshwater elasmobranchs of northern Queensland, Australia, including sawfish, speartooth sharks and freshwater stingrays.
Throughout her 12 year scientific career, Barbara has acquired knowledge on capturing, tagging and releasing large elasmobranchs including lemon sharks, tiger sharks and sawfish, and has worked in the remote river systems of Far North Queensland and Cape York Peninsula. She has also acquired knowledge on morphological and behavioural methods to identify the sensory adaptations of large fishes. She has worked with people from all walks of life, including industry, fisheries, and politicians. Her research has resulted in peer reviewed high impact publications and has been featured multiple times in international media, such as BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Science Magazine, Cosmos Magazine, ABC, and Discovery Magazine.
© Neil Hammerschlag
Dr Vera Schluessel, University of Bonn
Vera has always had very strong interest in aquatic organisms, particularly elasmobranchs. After receiving her BSc degree from UMBC (USA) in 1999, she spent seven months gaining fieldwork experience at the Bimini Sharklab, Bahamas. For her MSc she studied spatial behaviour in freshwater stingrays at the University of Bonn, Germany. Her PhD project at the University of Queensland focused on the general biology and population genetics of the white spotted eagle ray, Aetobatus narinari. For this project, Vera organized various field trips to fish markets in Taiwan, Heron Island and the Moreton Bay Research Station.
Currently, Vera works on the learning and memory abilities in sharks and rays. The main study species used in her lab are bamboo sharks, blue spotted mask rays and freshwater stingrays. Vera and her students have figured out lots of really interesting stuff like for example while sharks cannot see colour, they can easily discriminate between geometric figures, categorize objects and see illusory contours. And just like stingrays, sharks have really good spatial memories.
Research Board Members
Dr Ross Dwyer, University of the Sunshine Coast
Ross is a research fellow based at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He is passionate about movement ecology and is currently coordinating research into populations of large riverine predators in Far North Queensland. Often spending months at a time camped in remote locations, his fieldwork involves leaping onto crocs, deploying animal tracking devices and recovering equipment from croc-infested waters. The goal of his research is to gain insights into the spatial dynamics of these poorly understood water systems, in order to inform management and conservation plans for threatened or potentially dangerous species.
Johnny Gaskell, BSc MB, Reef Catchments
Johnny studied Marine Biology in southern Australia and has since gained 15 years experience working with and handling both captive and wild large sharks and rays. He joined the SARA team in late 2016. His early work in marine education, aquarist and underwater photography lead to his first published book ‘Beneath our Bay’ and iPhone app ‘Sea Life Australia’, detailing Australian marine life for education. Johnny spent years caring for captive sawfish and speartooth sharks. More recently he spent time at Ningaloo Reef working as a Dive Master with manta rays and whale sharks. From 2014 – 2021 he wass the Living Reef Manager on Daydream island, Whitsunday Islands, where he worked with a range of marine animals commonly found in the region including giant shovelnose rays, various species of stingrays and reef sharks.
You can find some of Johnny’s amazing pictures and videos on instagram @johnny_gaskell
Dr Helen Penrose, Jabiru Environmental
Helen is a community-minded marine and coastal environmental scientist with 17 years of experience in marine wildlife management (including inshore elasmobranchs). She brings to SARA a wealth of experience conducting field work in remote northern Australia and strong connections and professional relationships with the Traditional Owner and Aboriginal Ranger groups of the Great Barrier Reef and Cape York Peninsula regions. Helen is passionate about presenting Indigenous communities with opportunities for capacity building, cultural recognition and empowerment, as well as the conservation of Australia’s marine biodiversity. She is also the director of Jabiru Environmental.
Dr Nicole Phillips, University of Southern Mississippi
Nicole started her education studying Biology at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan in the U.S. Her love of sharks and rays took her to Murdoch University in Perth, Australia where she earned a BSc in Biological Sciences, a BSc in Marine Science with honours, and a PhD in Conservation Genetics. Nicole then did for a postdoctoral fellowship with the University of Miami and NOAA Fisheries. She is passionate about using genetic data to better understand the population genetics of endangered or exploited marine species, including sharks and rays, to aid in the development of conservation plans. Her research on sawfishes in Australia started in 2005 and is ongoing, as well as other species, at the University of Southern Mississippi. Genetic samples collected by SARA will be used in her research and she will be coordinating their use in other studies.
A/Prof Dave Morgan, Murdoch University
Dr David Morgan leads Team Sawfish from the Freshwater Fish Group and Fish Health Unit at Murdoch University. He started working with sawfish and other freshwater fish in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions in Western Australia in 1996. Since 2001, his group has tagged hundreds of sawfish in the Fitzroy River, and works closely with Indigenous Ranger Groups in the area.
Dr Nigel Hussey, University of Windsor
Nigel is an expert on the use of chemical tracers to understand the structure and function of food webs, with a focus on their application to elucidate the ecological roles of elasmobranchs. Through over 14 years experience, his work has been instrumental in improving our understanding of how chemical tracers transfer through aquatic food webs and addressing numerous methodological assumptions that have constrained their application. Specifically, his development of a scaled stable isotope framework to interpret food web structure has revolutionised food web ecology and will be pivotal for elucidating the role of sawfishes and for comparative analysis of their ecological role and niche with co-occurring predator species.
Students & interns (A-Z)
Veronika Biskis, PhD student, University of the Sunshine Coast
Nikki earned her BSc in Biology at Carnegie Mellon University in 2012 and her MA in Medical Sciences at Boston University School of Medicine in 2013. She worked in STEM education in San Diego, CA for 5 years, while simultaneously volunteering in vertebrate collections at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Throughout her work with the museum she became especially passionate about spatial ecology and evolutionary morphology. In 2018 she left the US to pursue her research career in zoology. Since arriving in Australia, she has worked as a field intern recording animal behaviour in rural Victoria and Tasmania. In 2019 Nikki did an internship with SARA and in 2021 she commenced her PhD with Dr Barbara Wueringer (SARA) and Dr Kathy Townsend (University of the Sunshine Coast & Project Manta) as her supervisors!
Jess Hudgins, Heriot-Watts University
Grace McNicholas, BSc MSc, York University
Advance Queensland Citizen Science Grant 2019 – 2022
Qld Gov Community Action Sustainability Grant – Threatened Species Recovery 2021 – 2024
2015 Small grant
2015 – 2018 Keystone Grant
2020 Small grant
Our research is approved and monitored by the JCU Animal Ethics Committee