The Leafy Seadragon is perfectly adapted to hiding in the seaweed and kelp. The leaf-like protrusions that make it so distinctive give it the appearance of seaweed. This helps to trick predators as well as the small fish and crustaceans that the Leafy Seadragon likes to eat.
The way it moves is deceptive too. The Leafy Seadragon uses tiny translucent fins on its head to steer while similar fins on its back propel it gently through the water, creating the illusion of a piece of floating seaweed. It can even change colour to blend in with its surroundings. Now that’s clever!
It’s a patient creature, and has been observed remaining in one location for anything up to 68 hours. It was once thought to be very limited in its range, but further research has found that the seadragon will happily travel several hundred metres from its habitat, using its fantastic sense of direction to get home safely.
Wild Leafy Seadragon are rare and are only found in the waters off the south coast of Australia. They generally float around clumps of sand in waters up to 50 metres deep. It’s prevalence along the south coast of Australia has led to it becoming the official marine emblem for South Australia.
It’s not surprising to learn that the Leafy Seadragon is from the same family as the seahorse. Much like the seahorse, the Leafy Seadragon has a long, pipe-like snout that it uses to feed. Its diet consists of plankton and small crustaceans such as mysids. Ocassionally, they will also eat shrimp and small fish. Oddly for such a diet, the Leafy Seadragon does not have any teeth. So a small fish is probably quite a mouthful!
Another seahorse similarity can be spotted in the Leafy Seadragon’s reproductive behaviour. The male looks after the eggs! The female produces up to 250 bright pink eggs and deposits them on to the male's tail. The eggs then attach themselves to a ‘brood patch’, which keeps them supplied with oxygen.
After around nine weeks, the eggs are ready to hatch. The male pumps his tail until the infants emerge, a process which takes place over 24-48 hours. The babies are given a little extra help to emerge as the male shakes his tail and rubs it against seaweed and rocks. Once born, the infant sea dragon is completely independent. Talk about growing up fast!
Leafy Seadragons are unfortunately subject to many threats, both natural and manmade. They are slow swimmers which makes them vulnerable to predators and are often washed ashore after storms due to their inability to cling onto sea grass for safety (like the seahorse). They are also caught by collectors, used in alternative medicine and are threatened by pollution and industrial runoff from the coast.
To help secure the future of these mesmerising creatures, the Leafy Seadragon is now officially protected by the Federal Government of Australia.