Our enormous seas are still mostly unexplored. We may never be aware of all the exciting sea animals lying in the dark depths we know nothing about. On the other hand, humans have been fortunate enough to observe the fantastic beauty of the Leafy Aquatic Dragon, a fascinating tiny sea monster.
The Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques), commonly known as Glauert’s Seadragon, is a marine fish belonging to the Syngnathidae family and the only member of the Phycodurus genus. This species is endemic to Australia’s southern and western shores, from Kangaroo Island to Rottnest Island. It is closely related to seahorses and pipefish. Their common name comes from their appearance, which includes long, ultra-fine, fragile leaf-like appendages emerging from all over their body and a resemblance to another species – the fabled dragon. However, because these protrusions resemble seaweed, they are mainly used for camouflage rather than propulsion. Leafy sea dragons are some of the world’s most ingeniously disguised species. They fit in flawlessly with their seaweed and kelp formations habitat.
A pectoral-fin on the ridge of its neck & a dorsal fin on its back, closer to the tail end, move this delicate creature forward. These little fins, almost entirely transparent, can be challenging to see as they undulate vigorously to propel the Leafy sea dragon through the water quietly and slowly, enhancing the image of floating seaweed. These animals are terrible swimmers who rely on their incredible camouflage to avoid predators. They are slightly larger than other seahorses, reaching a length of 20–24 cm (8–9.5 in) despite their modest stature. Furthermore, they differ from seahorses not only in appearance but also in mobility. Unlike seahorses, they cannot coil or grip objects with their tail.
Leafy sea dragons can also change colour to fit in. However, this ability is dependent on the diet, age, location, and stress level of the marine creature. By sucking its prey through its long pipe-like snout with a small terminal mouth, this species feeds on small crustaceans, including amphipods and mysid shrimp, plankton, and larval fish. Despite their diminutive size, they have sufficient vision to recognize and attack individual prey (unlike large filter feeders). They have big-heads in comparison to their tiny mouths, allowing them to focus enough pressure in their mouths to readily suck in their prey.
Leafy sea-dragon males are responsible for childbearing in the same way sea horses are. Still, instead of a pouch, they have a spongy brood patch on the underside of the tail. The lower half of the male sea dragon’s tail wrinkles when he is ready to receive eggs from the mother. During mating, the female lays between 100 and 250 bright-pink eggs on the male’s specific brood patch, where the eggs are fertilized during the transfer. During the breeding season, the male develops this brood patch, consisting of cups of blood-rich tissue, each retaining one egg and delivering oxygen to the eggs. Male Leafy sea dragons will lay two batches of eggs during each breeding season.
The male releases miniature sea-dragons into the ocean about 6-8 weeks after conception by pumping his tail until the young-ones emerge – a process that takes 24–48 hours. By shaking his tail, rubbing it against seaweed and rocks, the male aids in hatching the eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, each young sea dragon has a little yolk sack attached to it. Over the next three days, the newborn will be fed from this sac. After this period, they are on their own and hunt tiny zooplankton like copepods and rotifers until they are large enough to hunt young mysids. Unfortunately, only around 5% of the eggs survive, and juvenile sea dragons are preyed upon by other fish, crustaceans, and even sea anemones in the wild.
After one year, leafy sea dragons reach a mature size of 20 cm. Young sea dragons are typically a different hue than adults, appear more delicate, and can hide in various seaweeds. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorizes leafy sea dragons as Near Threatened (NT). These vulnerable aquatic species face multiple dangers, both natural and man-made. Unlike its relative seahorse, sea dragons cannot curl their tails to hang onto seagrasses for safety. As a result, they are regularly thrown ashore following storms. They’re also caught by aquarium collectors and utilized in alternative medicine. In the face of these threats, the species enjoys special protection under federal fisheries legislation and in most Australian states where it is found.
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