The leafy seadragon is an amazing and beautiful creature found in the ocean. It’s named after the dragons of Chinese legends, however, it doesn’t look like a dragon that much. Here are some interesting facts about the leafy seadragon and its unique adaptions.
1. They have leaves on their body
The leafy seadragon is a rare fish with one of the most captivating and distinctive appearances in the ocean. Its head, body, and tail are adorned with green-brown leaf-like appendages that resemble the leaves of seaweeds and other underwater vegetation.
In terms of color, mature leafy seadragons are a mix of yellow, orange, green, and brown. They feature thin, dark pink stripes that run along their bodies. These creatures have a tiny head with a long and slender snout that resembles a pipe, and a tail that is roughly half the length of their overall body.
In addition to its unique physical appearance, the leafy seadragon also possesses the remarkable ability to change color. This color-changing ability is influenced by several factors, including diet, age, location, depth of water, and stress levels.
Leafy seadragons, as well as other Sygnathidae family members (pipefish or seahorses), are characterized by their fused jaws and tough body. Unlike most other sea creatures, these animals don’t have scales, instead, their body is coated in sharp hard bone plates that serve as armor-like protection. Their dorsal and pectoral fins are tiny and nearly invisible. They lack pelvic and caudal fins.
One special thing about leafy seadragons is that their eyes can work independently of one another. While one eye focuses on one direction, the other can see its surroundings on the opposite side.
Compared to their relatives, leafy seadragons are quite substantial in size. The largest leafy seadragon can grow up to 35 cm (14 in), with females being bigger than males.
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2. Their “leaves” are not for swimming
You may think that the delicate appendages on leafy seadragons assist them in swimming. However, they do not. Instead, this characteristic helps the creatures to blend into their surroundings full of kelp forests and algae. To predators, the sea creatures look like floating seaweed.
The leafy seadragons are not good swimmers and they’re not also poisonous. Therefore, they need their camouflage ability to live in places where there are a lot of threats nearby.
So, if the species don’t use the leaf-like extensions to swim, what do they use? The answer is their transparent thin pectoral and dorsal fins. By rapidly flapping their fins and utilizing their tails as steering mechanisms, they are able to move through the water.
The air in their swim bladders can be adjusted to allow them to maintain a vertical position or to move up and down in the water column. However, with no tail fin, the seadragon moves slowly, reaching speeds of up to 490 feet per hour. These species have been seen to stay in one spot for extended periods of time.
The leafy seadragons have a powerful sense of direction. Even if they are far away from their familiar territory, they can still find their way back home.
3. Range and habitat
You can only find these seadragons in the coastal waters of southern and western Australia. These waters have seasonal temperatures ranging from 13 to 19°C (55 to 67°F). Seadragons can be found in the depths of 3.3-54.7 yards (3-50 meters) below the low tide.
These aquatic creatures live among the underwater vegetation and flora such as seagrass meadows, sand patches close to the reefs, rocky reefs, and seaweed beds.
If you want to see them, you can make a journey to Australia and go scuba diving. The species easily get injured. So, you shouldn’t touch or harass the fish If you cannot, you can go to the aquarium to have a look at them.
4. They suck their food
Leafy seadragons are carnivorous animals that consume many species, including small fishes, larval fishes, small crustaceans, worms, amphipods, and sea lice. Their favorite diet is mysid shrimp which can be found amongst the algae and seagrasses.
Due to their lack of a stomach, these species have to eat continuously while looking for food in large areas. Without teeth, they use their long, straw-like snouts and small mouths to swallow their food.
By extending a joint on the lower section of their snout, leafy seadragons are able to create suction and suck in their food when they come near. This way, they can easily swallow their entire prey. In a day, a single sea dragon can consume thousands of mysid shrimp.
5. The males incubate and take care of eggs
The leafy seadragons make their way to specific shallow bays in late winter, where they come together to form groups for mating purposes. The breeding season of these creatures occurs from October to January.
During reproduction season, these species engage in a unique mating dance, swaying their colorful appendages along with their partner.
At the appropriate moment, the female lays about 250 – 300 bright pink eggs and inserts them into the male’s soft skin for fertilization. His skin hardens to create a cup around each egg, ensuring they remain secure during incubation.
This process is similar to that of seahorses. Like the male seahorse, the male leafy seadragon is responsible for caring for the eggs until they hatch.
When the mating season is near, male seadragons will develop a brood patch on the underside of the tails. This is the place where the creatures will keep their eggs, instead of carrying them in a pouch like male seahorses. The patch will deliver oxygen-rich blood to the cup-like tissue surrounding the eggs.
After approximately 8 – 9 weeks, the eggs will begin to hatch. The male leafy seadragons push their tail to allow new young to emerge. They only let a few eggs out at a time. That is why it will take them from 24 to 48 hours to release the whole brood.
The newly hatches measure just .8 inches (20 mm) long, with a short snout, no leafy appendages, and silver and black color. They no longer receive any form of care from their parents.
However, those young leafy seadragons are still equipped with enough yolk to keep them going for a couple of days. This sack acts as a protective measure for them until they can find their own food sources such as zooplankton and baby mysids.
Unfortunately, due to the high risk of predation, only 5% of the eggs are expected to survive. They reach sexual maturity after around two years.
The lifespan of leafy seadragons in the wild is estimated to be seven to ten years, although this is still uncertain.
6. Leafy seadragons and seahorses
Leafy seadragons and seahorses are both members of the family Syngnathidae. Although they share a similar family and some characteristics, there are still obvious differences between them.
– Physical appearance:
- Seadragons are more colorful with different colors like yellow, orange, green, pink, and brown.
- Seahorses’ snouts are shorter than that of seadragons.
- Seadragons have leaf-like appendages on their bodies while seahorses come in a bonier appearance.
- The tail of seahorses usually curves up and can grasp objects like plants. On the other hand, seadragons have a longer tail that cannot be curled.
– Habitat: Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate waters across the world, while leafy seadragons are only found in the waters of western and southern Australia.
Both male seahorses and male seadragons take care of their young, but there is a difference in how they carry them. Male seahorses carry their young in a pouch, while male seadragons carry their eggs externally on the underside of their tails, on a brood patch.
7. Conservation status
The IUCN Red List classified leafy seadragons as near threatened. Human activities, fertilizer runoff, contamination, and climate change all contribute to habitat destruction. Fishing practices can get them trapped as bycatch.
These species were used to be poached to sell in the pet trade market or to use in traditional Asian medicines. Rough seas and the lack of food supplies are also affecting their populations.
To protect these magnificent creatures, both South and Western Australia have declared the leafy sea dragon as a protected species. In South Australia, one brooding male is permitted to be collected each year and the captive-bred hatchlings are distributed globally for educational and research purposes.