Leafy seadragon

Leafy_Seadragon_on_Kangaroo_Island

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Leafy seadragons are rather odd looking fish living in the waters south of Australia. They are a part of the same family seahorses are from. It probably isn’t hard to see where these animals got their name. It does almost look like leaves are growing out of its body! Most leafy sea dragons are about the same color as the one shown above. They have a yellow body with greenish “appendages,” as the leaves are called. I’ll just call them leaves, though. The color varies slightly based on age, diet, and location. Some of these animals have brighter yellows and greens than the one shown above does. The leafy appendages are actually helpful to the leafy seadragon. They help camouflage it with the seaweed around which these animals live. If a predator does see through this disguise, leafy seadragons use the spines along the body – you can see some of these in between the leaves along the bottom of the fish – to defend themselves.  Their eyes are situated more towards the top of the head than on most other fish. Unlike seahorses, this fish does not have a prehensile tail, meaning it cannot use its tail to grab on to things.

Size

Leafy seadragons are quite a bit larger than the seahorses to which they are related. They are also larger than you would probably think by looking at the picture. They are on average eight to ten inches (20-24 cm) long, but can be up to fourteen inches (35 cm) in length! Females are generally noticeably smaller than the males, but not by a whole lot.

Diet

One really weird fact about the leafy seadragon is that they have no teeth and no stomach! Because they have no stomach, they must eat almost constantly. Since they have no teeth, they swallow their food whole. These fish feed mainly on invertebrates such as shrimp and plankton, but they will also eat fish larva. The way these fish feed is also quite interesting. They use their tube-like snout to suck their prey – along with some water – into their body.

Habitat and range

Leafy seadragons are found in the oceans off the coast of southern and southwestern Australia. The reason they live in a tropical area like this is that they need the water to be at least somewhat warm to survive. Even here, winter temperatures can get as low as 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 C). These seadragons live in places where plants that look like them grow. This helps them camouflage themselves. They seadragons go kind of deep in the ocean, but not greater than some SCUBA divers can go. Leafy seadragons can be found up to 164 feet (50 m) below the surface.

Status and threats

The seadragon is classified as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Redlist. There are not as many threats for seadragons as there are for seahorses. One example is that seahorses are used in traditional Chinese medicine, while seadragons are not. They are sometimes captured for aquariums, though. The biggest threat to leafy seadragons is probably habitat loss. Pollution from industry and agriculture make the ocean waters less livable.

Mating and young

Leafy seadragon mating season goes from October to March. This is summer in Australia. The males sometimes fight each other for the right to mate with a certain female. Once the winner has been decided, the seadragons mate. As with most seahorses, leafy seadragon males take care of the eggs before they hatch. The female places up to 250 pink eggs on the underside of the male’s tail. Under his tail, the male has soft skin into which the eggs are embedded. The skin then hardens, keeping the eggs safe. The male protects the eggs for up to 9 weeks before they hatch. This time can be a few weeks shorter if the water is warmer. When the young leafy seadragons hatch, they are only about 0.8 inches (2 cm) long. Because of this, the young are extremely vulnerable to predators, including animals that feed mainly on plankton. There are aquatic organisms smaller than these babies, though, and they eat these. They eat mainly plankton. The young reach their adult size by the time they are two years old. These animals are estimated to live up to ten years.

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Sources:

Photo credits:

  • Leafy seadragon – James Rosindell
  • Leafy seadragon range – Cowdy001
  • Mystery animal – Mono Andes
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