Leafy Sea Dragon - (Phycodurus eques)
Leafy sea dragons (Phycodurus eques) are a wondrous sight to behold. Named for their plant-like appearance, this charismatic species is covered in leaf-like appendages. This enables them to blend in with the floating pieces of seaweed that grow in seagrass beds of which sea dragons inhabit. This spectacular camouflage prevents prey and predators from recognizing them as a fish. They are found along the western and southern coasts of Australia, preferring areas of clear water, low light conditions and lots of vegetation.
Sea dragons are in the taxonomic group of Syngnathidae, this includes all seahorses, seadragons, pipefish and pipehorses. The name Syngnathidae translates to “fused mouth” and describes the unique shape of the mouth which resembles the muzzle of a horse. Although leafy sea dragons are not large, they are bigger than their closely related species, reaching lengths of up to 20-35 cm. They feed on plankton, tiny crustaceans and mysids, sucking in their prey though their small mouths which is situated at the end of their long pipe-like snout. They do not have a digestive system, therefore they need to eat slowly and frequently.
Sea dragons are well known for their courtship rituals. When they are ready to mate the male and female leafy sea dragon perform an elaborate courtship dance where they will come together during the fading evening light. This graceful and engaging sequence is known as a “mirror dance” where each partner mimics the actions of the other in a captivating duet of swimming and intertwining of bodies. At the end of the ritual, the female lays 100-250 eggs onto a special brood patch. The patch holds cups of blood-rich tissue each holding one egg which will receive oxygen via the cups’ blood vessels. Similar to seahorses, the responsibility of caring for the fertilized eggs lies with the males, however they are not equipped with a pouch for rearing their young. Instead, the male attaches the brood patch to the underside of his tail where they will stay until they are ready to hatch. Breeding season is August –March, during each breeding seasons the leafy sea dragons will hatch two batches of eggs. Gestation period is around 8 weeks and when the miniature versions of sea dragons finally emerge they instinctively know how to care for themselves, which can be quite daunting and dangerous with an ocean full of predators around them including penguins and fish. The young sea dragons appear a lot more delicate, are usually different colours and spend most of their time hiding from predators in many different types of seaweeds until they reach maturity at 2 years.
Unfortunately, as for many magnificent creatures in the ocean, the leafy sea dragon is now a rare site and listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Near Threatened. Marine pollution, habitat loss and illegal capture for display are all thought to be the reasons for their decline.
Please take 3 minutes to watch this video of the magical mirror dance.
Written by Angela Warrior @Pure Sea Animal Bites