The rare and carnivore sea dragons are especially adapted marine fish that live at the bottom of water beds, surviving with their perfectly camouflaged ability to live in seagrass beds, kelp beds and seaweeds. This is because of the leaf-like fins and frilly appendages which make them look like swaying plants in the water.
Belonging to the genera Phycodurus eques (leafy sea dragons) and Phyllopteryx taeniolatus (weedy sea dragons), the sea dragon's name is derived from the many plant-like appendages that cover its unique body, causing it to resemble one of mythology's mythical creatures flowing through the air. Sea dragons are related to the pipefish and seahorse, as seen in all three species' ability of the male to carry the eggs. Several other distant-related cousins are the snipefish, ghost pipefish, paradox fish, sea moths, flutemouths, trumpetfish, and shrimpfish.
The leafy sea dragon and the weedy sea dragon are pretty much look alike in some ways, as they are able to camouflage so well in water with their appendages matching the types of plants in their unique surroundings. However, this similarity ends there. Because they are two different types - they will look different as they live in different water environments and at different depths. The leafy sea dragon has lots of appendages that stream in the water as it moves. This allows them to remain hidden in 30 to 90 feet of water where plants are bushier and thicker with bright colors to match the environment. Meanwhile, the leaner weedy sea dragon has a reddish cast to it with purple and yellow coloring and less fluffy appendages, allowing it to hide in deeper water levels where the colors are darker and less showy, as in the leafy sea dragons..
~ Australian Sea Dragon Laws
Both South and Western Australia protect the sea dragons by limiting catches to one brooding male a year. It is also illegal to catch and sell the sea dragons on the market as pets and for medicinal purposes. However, it is legal to send them off overseas for research and education to certain organizations. Australia has established the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 for the protection of the sea dragons living in their waters.
~ Breeding season
The breeding season for sea dragons is during August to March. During one breeding season, the male sea dragons hatch out two batches of miniature sea dragons.
Leafy and weedy sea dragons are not only two species, but two different colors. According to National Geographic's article, "Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragon", the body of the leafy sea dragons ranges from a beautiful brown-to-yellow color with vibrant olive-tinted appendages. Meanwhile, the weedy sea dragon has fewer projections and is a less flashy red color with purples and yellow spots. Both types of sea dragons resemble pieces of floating seaweed which allows them to hide in their natural habitat from seeking predators. Propelling and steering gently through water gives them a slightly "tumble weed" effect caused by their transparent dorsal and pectoral small fins.
~ Conservation Status
Wikipedia lists the weedy sea dragon and the leafy sea dragon as an IUCN 3.1, or a status of "Near Threatened". (Wikipedia. "Phyllopteryx: and "Leafy sea dragon" (2010). This is considered a status that is threatened with extinction in the future but not at this time. Because of its dangerous situation, the sea dragons are re-evaluated more often or during appropriate intervals. When species or lower taxa are threatened with a status of "Near Threatened", they are also threatened with vulnerability, depending on conservation efforts to prevent them from becoming completely threatened.
Sea dragons live on a diet of plankton, larval fish, shrimp, sea lice, small fish and other small crustaceans. They feed through a long "aardvark-like" snout which resembles a pipe, sucking up prey in a small mouth. This is because they have no teeth, requiring the sea dragon to "slurp-up" their food as in a straw. Most of their food survives by feeding on the red algae in the shade of the kelp, a favorite place for sea dragons to not only hide out but to also eat well.
The reason the sea dragons live in the temperate waters of Western and Southern Australia is because the water temperature is perfect and they can camouflage well in the plants among seaweeds, kelp beds, and seagrass. However, the Australian government has begun to protect them from increased threats of heavy fertilizer runoff and severe pollution which are threatening their population numbers. Threats from poachers, photographers and collectors are also becoming major threats to the existence of the sea dragons.
Another developing problem for the leafy sea dragons is human "collectors" who are unscrupulous individuals in their practice of gathering and selling the little marine fish for two illegal purposes: (1) collected for marketing as pets and (2) selling in Asia for medicinal purposes.
~ Life Span
The life span of a sea dragon is estimated to be around eight years of age. However, this depends on whether they are living in their natural habitat or in captivity. In nature, it is estimated that only about 5% of all sea dragons will live to maturity.
The seahorses are known to be endemic to the temperate ocean waters of Southern Australia from Kangaroo Island to Rottnest Island. Also found in Western Australia, the sea dragons live among the area's kelp-covered rocks below the low tide line. Other areas are further east of Australia along the coast of the Victorian province.
Another location for the tiny sea dragons is in captivity—shipped out from Australia for scientific and research purposes to learn more about them. In Robert Kovacik's article, "Sea Dragons Sharing Secrets in Captivity" (August 13, 2002), a pair of breeding weedy sea dragons successfully lived in captivity at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific in Los Angeles - named Big Daddy and Poppa Dragon. In 2002, they gained fame for being the first sea dragons that were able to live in captivity and give birth to 40 sea dragon babies between them.
~ Mating and Reproduction
It is impossible to tell the difference in the sexes of sea dragons until they begin to mate. For example, when the male leafy sea dragon is ready, his tail will turn a bright yellow to inform his mate he is ready to mate. (Kovacik. 2002) The males are responsible for the sea dragons' entire childbearing process as not only will his tail turn a yellow color when he is ready to mate but also he will inform her by "wrinkling" his lower tail area where his brood patch is located on the underside of the tail. Fertilization will not occur until the female begins dropping very pink eggs on this spongy area under his lower back tail -with fertilization occurring at that moment they are attached. The eggs embedded in the cups of the male's brood patch will receive enough oxygen through blood vessels in the area's cups. The female lays about 100 to 250 eggs on this brood patch.
The babies are not born until four to six weeks later, becoming completely independent when they hatch. Once they depart from their father's tail, they can sustain themselves by their yolk sac for about two to three days. (Marine Bio. 2010) Once the egg "pops" open, the baby simply hangs from the egg until it begins to straighten out. Once it wiggles free, it is able to swim off. Tiny as they are, the baby sea dragons will eventually begin hunting small copepods and rotifers (small zooplankton) for feed. This is a time when the population numbers go down for sea dragons, as they will be preyed upon by sea anemones, fish and crustaceans.
~ Sea Dragon Celebrations and Festivals
In 2009, the Leafy Sea Dragon Festival was held in South Australia on the Fleurieu Peninsula. Lasting for ten days, the purpose of the festival is always to raise awareness of the leafy sea dragon, South Australia's official sea emblem.
The weedy sea dragon is considered the smaller size of the two sea dragons, growing about 14 inches. The leafy sea dragon is considered the larger of the two, reaching 18 inches if it can reach full size. But when the babies are first born, they will be only 1.5 to 4 inches the first four weeks of their life.
The sea dragons have eyes that move independently of each other, allowing it to look left, front, right and backward all at once.
If mankind has their way, the sea dragon will soon be extinct due to over-collecting of species for illegal pet markets, illegal collecting for the Asian market for medicinal purposes, stress-related deaths because of mass amounts of photographers and tourists in the Australian area, habitat loss and severe pollution. With so much going against them in the wild, it is no help that their survival rate is low during childbirth, only high when in captivity-which moves up to 60 percent.
The best thing that has happened so far is that the Australian government has become aware of the sea dragon and its many problems for survival, acting on each dangerous situation which has jeopardized the sea dragon population.
On an individual basis, many things can be done to help. Letters written to the Australian government in favor of what they are doing; or writing countries which are marketing the sea dragon as a commodity can be done to state an opinion. Writing directly to pet stores or checking on newspaper ads/Internet sources also helps. There are many conservation organizations to join on-line where contributions always come in handy.
Kovacik, Robert. (2002). National Geographic Online. "Sea Dragons Sharing Secrets in Captivity". August 13, 2002. Website:html
Marine Bio. (2010). "Leafy sea dragon". Website: .org/species.asp?id=31
Monterey Bay Aquarium. (2010). "Leafy Sea Dragon". Website:=415
National Geographic Online. (2009). "Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragon". Website: html
Seahorse Shop. (2010). "Seahorses, Seadragons and Pipefish". Website: /
SIMS-Sydney Institute of Marine Science. (2008). "Life History of the Weedy Sea Dragon". Website: cfm
Wikipedia. (2010). "Phyllopteryx". Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllopteryx_taeniolatus
Wikipedia. (2010). "Leafy sea dragon". Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leafy_sea_dragon