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Have You Ever Seen the Amazing Leafy Sea Dragon?
If you have never seen a leafy sea dragon before, neither have I until very recently. The first time I saw it was in the below video and my feeling was like: "Oh my god, look at that!!!" So deeply impressed was I with the marvels of Mother Nature... and that is to put it very mildly! After you have viewed the below video, I am sure you will agree with me that the leafy sea dragon is one of the most majestic animals of the marine world!
The leafy sea dragon is a marine fish that is related to the pipefish and the seahorse. Their lobes of skin make them look like seaweed and act as a camouflage. These lobes, however, are not used for moving about and I suppose it is because the leafy sea dragon wants to imitate seaweeds which don't move by themselves. Simply amazing, how Mother Nature goes to such great pain to protect its creations from danger and possible extinction! The seaweed-like lobes can also change color, but this ability depends a lot on the sea dragon's diet, age, location, and stress level.
The leafy sea dragons are found ONLY along the southern and western coasts of Australia, and has been made the official marine emblem of the state of South Australia. So why is the waters of the southern and western coasts of Australia so special? Since leafy sea dragons are generally found in areas that have a good coverage of seagrasses, kelp, or Ecklonia weed, I suppose they must live in areas where their seaweed-like lobes harmonize with the surroundings, otherwise these appendages would have served no purpose. But true, this does not explain why leafy sea dragons are found only in Australia and not anywhere else, since seagrasses are not unique to Australia.
Leafy Sea Dragon
The Weedy Sea Dragon, a cousin of the leafy sea dragon
Physical Characteristics of the Leafy Sea Dragon
The leafy sea dragons are generally brown-to-yellow in body color, with spectacular olive-tinted seaweed-like appendages. They are about 35 cm (14 in) long, when fully grown. Slightly larger than most sea horses, leafy sea dragons are, however, smaller in size than their cousin, the weedy sea dragon, which can grow up to 46 cm (18 in) long. Their slender trunks are covered with bony rings. Unlike their seahorse cousins, however, the thin tail of the leafy sea dragon cannot be used for gripping.
As mentioned earlier, the leafy sea dragon does not use its seaweed-like appendages for propulsion. Instead, they have small pectoral and dorsal fins that propel and steer them awkwardly through the water, drifting in the current like seaweeds. The pectoral fin is located on the ridge of its neck, while the dorsal fin is on its back, closer to the tail end. These small fins are transparent and almost invisible as they undulate minutely to move the sea dragon through the water, completing the illusion of floating seaweeds. The leafy sea dragon can travel several hundred meters from its habitat and return to the same spot, using a strong sense of direction. They are mostly found around clumps of sand in waters up to 50 meters (164 ft) deep, hiding among rocks and seagrasses.
Leafy sea dragons have very long, but thin pipe-like snouts. They are carnivorous and eat crustaceans primarily, including plankton and mysids (shrimp-like crustaceans), as well as shrimp and small fishes. Oddly enough, leafy sea dragons do not have teeth, a rare feature among carnivorous animals.
Just like the seahorse, the males of the leafy sea dragon are responsible for childbearing. Their tail will turn into a bright yellow color when they are ready to mate. However, unlike the seahorse that carries a pouch, leafy sea dragons have a spongy brood patch on the underside of their tail where the females deposit some 250 bright-pink eggs via a long tube during mating. The eggs are fertilized during transfer. These eggs then attach themselves to the brood patch which supplies them with oxygen. The males incubate the eggs which turn a ripe purple or orange over this period. After about 4-6 six weeks, (depending on water conditions), the male sea dragon pumps its tail until the infants emerge, a process which takes 24–48 hours. Once born, the infant sea dragons are completely independent, eating small zooplankton until they are large enough to hunt for mysids. Only about 5% of the eggs survive. Leafy sea dragons take about 28 months (2 years and 4 months) to reach sexual maturity.
A "Near-Threatened" Species
Leafy sea dragons face many threats, both natural and man-made. Apart from becoming endangered through pollution and industrial runoff, they are often washed ashore after storms, as they cannot curl their tail like the seahorse and hold onto seagrasses to stay safe.
Leafy sea dragons are also caught by collectors for use as alternative medicine, as well as by fascinated divers seeking to keep them as pets. Such takings, in fact, shrank their numbers so critically that by the early 1990s, the Australian government placed a complete protection on the leafy sea dragons, together with their cousins, the weedy sea dragons. Both species are now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as "near-threatened".