Dragons in the ocean


Imagine a seahorse but covered with skin filaments that looks like floating leaves from head to tail. A creature resembling the mythical dragon but is incredibly beautiful in shape and colouring. Leafy sea dragon, despite its fearsome name, is a unique sea animal sibling to weedy sea dragon but smaller. They are species native to the southern coast of Australia. Leafy sea dragon or Phycodurus eques has a plant-like appearance which makes them difficult for predators to find in their natural habitat. Their scientific name Phycodurus comes from a Latin words “phyko” means seaweed and “oura” for tail, while the term eques means horse in Latin. This solitary animal is commonly found with scales skin type in yellow to brown colour with olive-coloured spots and can reach 24cm in length. Closely related to the pipefish, leafy sea dragon can change its colour depends on the depth of the water. They are poor swimmers who typically drift parallelly with the currents but great at camouflage. Surprisingly, this distinctive animal is known to stay still more than 40 hours at a time just drifting along with the current. “Leafy” can be found along the southern and western coasts of Australia. Their lifespan is short, lives up to 10 years maximum. Due to human activities and habitat destruction, leafy has been listed in IUCN Red List as species Near-Threatened (NT). It is also fully protected by Australian law where one pregnant male is collected each year and their hatchlings will be exported for education and research.

This animal amazingly does not have any known predators. Their power of disguise is best described as of chameleon, it can go undetected by both predators and preys. Commonly, Leafy is eaten by larger fish and feed on plankton, larval fish, and varieties of tiny crustaceans. It forages on these unsuspecting micro-creatures by sucking up thousands of them each day through its long, tubular snout. Leafy neither has teeth nor a stomach. Their limitation on foraging is due to the long tube’s mouth which makes them swallow every prey as a whole. The powerful suction from the jaws makes it happen. Leafy are mostly shy, they do not live-in large schools, although we always see them in pairs. Most of the time, they just live their life floating freely in the water without using much energy to control where they are going. Leafy lives in the shallow, coastal waters and may be found at 150 feet in depth. Their natural habitat is obviously near seaweed, kelp forests, rocky reefs or in and around seagrass beds.

Leafy sea dragon has a similar reproduction cycle to other sea dragons. During the mating rituals, males may fight with other males for the right to breed. Breeding sessions occur when a female deposits her pink eggs on a spongy patch of skin under the male’s tail. Male will fertilize them as they are deposited. Commonly, females may lay up to 300 eggs at a time. All of the eggs will be held in a cup-skin made by male, to keep them safe and oxygenated until hatch. This breeding occurrence is influenced by the temperature of the water; it takes four to eight weeks at least for hatchlings to be released. Warm water will make eggs hatch sooner. Interestingly, sea dragons are loyal. Once a couple was formed, they will stay together until the eggs are laid. The babies, also called fry, look like junior versions of their parents except that they have fewer camouflaging appendages like adults’ sea dragon. Once the fry hatch, they will need to be independent as the male’s job is done so does the mother who left long before the hatch. The leafy junior does not get any protection which makes them easy targets for predators and resulting in high rate of mortality.

This charismatic animal propels itself by means of a pectoral fin on the ridge of its neck and a dorsal fin on its back closer to the tail end. These small fins are almost completely transparent and difficult to see as they undulate minutely to move the creature sedately through the water, completing the illusion of floating seaweed. The movement of this animal are structed as the outer skin is fairly rigid. It uses the fins along the side of its head to allow it steer and turn. The tracking of one individual observed that they move up to 150 m per hour. Although leafy sea dragon known as shy animal, but they are unbelievably photogenic. Capturing photograph for leafy sea dragon is an easy task with the aid of wide-angle lens or mid-range lens. This animal easily sensitive and fragile, thus, it is best not to harass or chase them by touching or moving them. Leafy have limited home range (10m x 10m) and sensitive swim bladder, it can easily injure when moving too fast. Males with eggs tend to drop their eggs in a stress condition. Taking photos for 3 minutes by shooting upward angles is enough and give them 15 minutes break to avoid stress.

In addition, leafy sea dragons possess many threats, both natural and man-made. They are often caught illegally by collectors for their aquarium or used in alternative medicine. They are vulnerable since day one and slow swimmers which increase mortality rate and declining in the population of leafy sea dragons. Besides, Sea dragons cannot curl their tails like sea horses to hold onto seagrasses, thus, they are commonly found after storms as being washed by waves and current. This species existence has become more in danger through pollution and industrial runoff which damage their habitat. In response to these threats, the species has been totally protected in South Australia since 1987, Victoria since at least 1995 and Western Australia since 1991. Additionally, leafy sea dragon is listing in the Australian government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 – means that the welfare of the species needs to be considered as a part of any developmental project.

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