The Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques) is found in the sandy, coastal water from Kangaroo Island to Jurien Bay in Australia. It is a member of the sea horse family and bears an uncanny resemblance to the mythical creature it was named for, but its behavior more closely resembles the gently floating algae that shares its ocean home.
Leafy Sea Dragon Anatomy
The Leafy Sea Dragon, a relative of the Weedy Sea Dragon and the Sea Horse, belongs to the Syngnathidae family, which also includes Pipe Fish. The Leafy Sea Dragon generally grows to be slightly larger than a Sea Horse, or 8 to 10 inches. It has yellow eyes that move independently of each other and an elongated snout like the Sea Horse, which it uses to eat its favorite crustaceans and plankton, but it has no teeth. It has a slender, bony trunk.
Although it has no pelvic fins, it does have fins on the sides of its neck for turning, steering, and hovering in place, which helps give it the appearance of a floating piece of seaweed. Hovering in place, sometimes for days at a time, enables the Leafy Sea Dragon to camouflage itself from predators as well as to catch food. The Leafy Sea Dragon differs from its Sea Horse and Weedy Sea Dragon relatives because it is covered in leaf-like appendages that are not used for movement, but to help it blend with its environment. The Leafy Sea Dragon is also able to change its color to blend with its environment.
The Mating Dance
Leafy Sea Dragons perform a graceful mating dance, and when it is time, the female deposits 100 to 250 bright pink eggs in oxygenated, spongy, cup-like devices on the "brood patch" on the male Leafy Sea Dragon's tail. The eggs are fertilized as they are deposited onto the tail.
According to National Geographic Online, the eggs remain on their father's tail for four to six weeks, gradually turning purple or orange, then the father begins a two day process of pumping his tail or brushing it against nearby seaweed to let the babies know it is time for them to leave their eggs. The infant Leafy Sea Dragons leave their eggs and immediately begin searching for food on their own. According to the Unique Australian Animals Website, infant Leafy Sea Dragons being eating zooplankton and gradually begin to eat sea lice over their first few days of life. In spite of the large numbers of eggs, only 5% of Leafy Sea Dragons survive their first year.
Threats to Survival
The Leafy Sea Dragon is classified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as being Near Threatened. Because they are slow swimmers, they are easily caught--and highly prized--by collectors, in spite of the fact that they are rather fragile and rarely survive outside their natural environment.
They are also killed for use in alternative medicines. As they spend most of their time near the coast, they are vulnerable to pollutants and sometimes wash up on shore during storms.
Celebrating and Protecting the Leafy Sea Dragon
The Leafy Sea Dragon was adopted by the Australian Government as the Official Marine Emblem of South Australia in 2001. It is protected by the Australian Government and permits are required to possess any Leafy Sea Dragon, dead or alive. The Leafy Sea Dragon is a very fragile creature and there are hefty fines for capturing the Leafy Sea Dragon and removing it from its natural habitat.
- "Leafy Seadragon." Government of South Australia. Retrieved March 4, 2010.
- "Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragon." National Geographic Online. Retrieved March 4, 2010.