weedy sea dragons

weedy sea dragons

The Subtle Beauty of the Weedy Sea Dragon

weedy sea dragons

The Weedy Sea Dragon is well-known for its majestic appearance and the ability to gently move through the water. You can easily lose sight of it when it decides to hide in its surroundings. This sea creature’s tricky nature adds to its overall appeal.

The Weedy Sea Dragon (scientifically called Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) is a very popular species (a close relative of the seahorse) that is found primarily just off the coast of southern Australia or in captivity in certain zoos in the US. They are unique animals that draw the attention of sea life enthusiasts worldwide.

They can make pets with caution, as a lot of work goes into the proper care of the Weedy Sea Dragon. They are also considered to be “Near Threatened” due to the difficulty of breeding in captivity and the low survival rate of the young in the wild. Because of this, private owners are encouraged to do more research about how to maintain and grow the current population. If you keep them your goal should be to breed them to maintain a back up population.
So, are you someone who wants a Weedy Sea Dragon? Are you up for the challenge, and interested in being able to help foster the continuation of this unique and fascinating type of sea horse? A good place to start is with some background.

What is a Weedy Sea Dragon?

weedy sea dragon
weedy sea dragon

Let’s start with the origin of the name. Sea Dragons, in general, were named after the dragons of Chinese legends. They are considered fish, but they don’t have a bony internal skeleton. Instead, they have an armored body protected by bony plates.

Weedy Sea Dragons are covered by leaf-like or moss-like appendages that decorate their bodies. They resemble seaweed and many times blend seamlessly with their underwater surroundings. They have curly tails, and they are slow swimmers, preferring instead to move in a swaying motion much like seaweed traveling along on ocean currents.

This ability is not accidental. It goes a long way in protecting the Weedy Sea Dragon from ocean predators. The camouflage they employ like armor is known as “mimicry” where the animal takes on chameleon-like traits to make themselves look “hidden in plain sight.”

In general Weedy Sea Dragons are known to live in rocky reefs, seaweed beds, seagrass meadows and really just about anywhere seaweed is found. They can sometimes be seen lurking in the shadows of pier or jetty pylons.
When they are seen it is a spectacular sight. They can often have amazing color patterns as well which include orange, red, yellow or even sometimes purple, depending on flora and fauna of their environment. They don’t just disappear, but they fit in. Like patterned wallpaper or the perfect divan, the Weedy Sea Dragon can add an air of completion to any seaweed colony.

Okay, so they’re pretty and fun to watch as they glide through the water. But what’s the big deal about them? Why are they becoming so rare?

There are 2 main reasons:

Feeding Problems of the Weedy Sea Dragon

Weedy Sea Dragons are unique in that they don’t have a digestive system. That seems like a weird thing for mother nature to have missed, but these little dragons make do by eating often and slowly. They eat by inhaling food through their snouts so everything must be the size of their snout or smaller.

Weedy Sea Dragons can range in size anywhere from 12 – 15 inches on average so they can usually be seen feeding on plankton, small shrimp and different types of malleable crustaceans. They’re not really known to be the fiercest of predators, but with their ability to blend in so well with their surroundings, catching unsuspecting prey ends up being an easy task.

However, as the intended prey adapts and get bigger and faster, it leaves the Weedy Sea Dragon at a disadvantage and often the animal has to go outside of its comfort zone to dine. This can be dangerous when your primary trait is blending in with familiar surroundings.

Breeding Sea Dragons is Difficult

weedy sea dragon courtship
weedy sea dragon courtship

Like seahorses, Weedy sea dragons are unusual because the male is the one to gestate and birth the babies. It is a task they take seriously and finding the appropriate partner is a must. The mating ritual between the two is long and involved, and at the end, the victor will deposit her eggs onto a sponge-like patch on the tail of the male Weedy Sea Dragon.

Gestation lasts about eight weeks or 2 months after which the eggs hatch and the baby dragons emerge. They are mostly independent and can take care of themselves, but they are still vulnerable to being eaten by all sorts of predators including penguins and fish.

Because of this, the mortality rate is at an astonishing 98% for the Weedy Sea Dragons born in the wild. Add this to the numbers that are accidentally rounded up in mass net fishing, or netted and used for medicinal purposes; you’ll see why their numbers are dropping fast.

To make matters tougher, for some reason breeding in captivity for these creatures can be difficult. To date, only a few Aquariums have been successful. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee along with the Melbourne Aquarium in Melbourne, Australia are among the very few that have successfully bred Sea Dragons in captivity.

The Weedy Sea Dragon, in particular, has been bred in captivity in Florida, Tennessee, and areas of Georgia as well as Australia. In fact, there is a protection act on the entire species in Australia.

It’s understandable if you try to look at it from their perspective. Being held captive in an unfamiliar environment could lead to them not being interested in breeding due to stress. The water, lighting, food or aquarium temperature might not be right. Additionally, the Weedy Sea Dragon is very picky. The courting process goes on for days, and the two paramours size each other up looking for true compatibility. This is hard to achieve and nearly impossible to fake in captivity unless there is a large breeding population.

newly hatched weedy sea dragon
newly hatched weedy sea dragon

In December of 2015, the captive breeding program at the Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium was able to replicate the conditions of the wild. By making changes to the lighting, water temperature, and flow, they were able to encourage breeding between their captive dragons successfully. In March of 2016, 45 fry (baby sea dragons) were still going strong and represented a 95% survival rate!

The fry themselves are destined to be world travelers. With extensive notes and connections to aquariums throughout the United States, China, Europe and the UK, these timid creatures are about to get the cultural experience of a lifetime. With a life expectancy of about nine years, it’ll be a short life, but a full one.
Keeping it as a Pet?

Well, that’s great! You might think. Breeding is happening all over the world so now it’s time for me to get a tank.
And you know what? Maybe it is. With the right care and conditions, you can help keep the Weedy Sea Dragon, a quirky part of the deep sea community. Make sure you purchase from a reputable and legal dealer, and that you have the setup and time to provide the care the animal needs.

If you don’t want to keep them yourself, then perhaps instead, encourage your local aquarium to invest in a herd of these creatures. By showing interest and volunteering your time or even a monetary donation, you can help the research that ensures the safety and survival of these precious sea creatures.

Fish coloration

various tropical fish colours

Coloration in fish

How do fish colours come about?

various tropical fish coloursFish coloration is formed by the reflection and absorption of various parts of the spectrum of light inside specialised cells. This is achieved by various layers of colour forming cells, such as crystals in the skin(iridophores), pigment cells(Chromatophores) and underlying flesh colours. Pigment cells are of various types.

Chromatophores can be classed according to colour under white light: xanthophores (yellow), erythrophores (red), iridophores (reflective), leucophores (white), melanophores (black/brown), and cyanophores (blue).

Combinations of these pigments and optical effects can produce many distinct colours.
Fish can also alter their brightness, colour and patterns. These colour changes are mostly autonomous and are effected by nerve impulses and hormonal releases during mating or fright. The nerve impulses and hormonal releases affect the chromatophores. Coloured chromatophores are branch liked structures that contract to remove the colour or expand fully to show full colour. Iridophores can reflect light thereby creating a metallic effect. Some iridophores refract light. This has the effect of creating a colour where that colour is not available as a pigment. Blue is often created in this way. Very few species of fish have blue pigmentation.

regal angelfish fish coloration
regal angelfish fish coloration

The pigments found in the chromatophores cannot be created by the fish but must be extracted from their diet. It has been demonstrated that when certain fish are denied a certain pigment from its diet that the fish will change colour.

Why do fish have colour?

Fish can change their colours to blend in with their environment called background adaptation, in terms of brightness and colour. They can also change their colours depending on mood and agression or submission.

Colouration in fish is vital for a fish’s survival. It plays a role in camouflage, fish recognition, mate selection ,mood display and warning of poisonous or danger. Most preyed upon fish have camouflage themselves by having a coloration, pattern or shade that closely matches it background environment. Fish can recognise each other as being from the same species and which gender and colour plays an important role in this. When in breeding mood usually the male will colour up with brilliant coloration. The brightest colours tend to attract the best females and is used as a warning against rivals. Fish can display dominance and submission by darkening or lightening their colours. In some species such as in many Malawi cichlids, submissive males will take on the colour of the females to avoid attack from dominant males. Some fish do the opposite of camouflage and in fact have developed very striking colours as a warning of being poisonous or dangerous.

yellow box fish
yellow box fish from Maldives

In the tropical fish keeping hobby colour is one of the most important factors that determine whether a particular species of fish makes its way into the hobby. Hobbyists favour fish with brilliant colours and patterns. Hobbyists by selective breeding have created new “sports” with enhanced or even new colours. These fish are more valuable and score higher in fish keeping shows.

Experienced tropical fish keepers recognise that fish do change coloration according to their environment, water conditions and diet. Having a darker gravel, feeding foods with high levels of pigmentation and providing the correct ph, hardness and salt levels all help in getting the best out of fish colours. Some vitamins and amino acids that produce pigmentation have a short shelf life and will not survive in sufficient quantities in dried fish food. Only live food and vegetable matter can provide sufficient pigmentation to aquarium kept fish.  Stressed fish will lose coloration as well as fish under bright lighting in bare aquariums or fish undergoing medical treatment.

Countershading is where there a fish’s body is dark when viewed from above and is light when viewed from below. This is for camouflage from predators above the water who will find it difficult to see a dark backed fish against the dark of the ocean, while the light bellied underneath of a fish makes it difficult for predators underneath to see the fish against the bright sky.

When in courtship mood fish usually enhance their colours to their maximum level of vividness. Usually male fish have better blue and red coloration and are generally more colourful than their female counterparts.

Young fish in most species are grey,green or black and have few distinctive markings. This is a form of camouflage because most young fish are preyed upon by adult fish. Young fish spend most of their youth near river or lake banks or near muddy bottoms between algae and plants and so have colours that resemble their bushy or earthy surroundings. Some sea fish have young that undergo a larval stage where they drift along with plankton. Most of these young are transparent to blend in with other plankton to avoid being eaten.