* This is a guest blog post by Jemma Macfadyen
Popularly known as ‘leafies’ the leafy seadragon is part of the Syngnathidae family, which also includes seahorses and pipefish. It’s indigenous to the South coast of Australia, you can’t find them in the wild anywhere else in the world. Perfectly camouflaged to look like a piece of floating seaweed the leafy sea dragon are some of the best adaptively camoflaged species in the animal kingdom and make great subjects for underwater photography. Leafies mate for life and spend much of their time in their pairs in a small, defined area of kelp forest around 10m x 10m. And repeat divers to the same area will often see the same sea dragons in the same place, between 5-15m deep. Slender and pipelike with floating leaf-shaped protrusions, leafy seadragons are not great swimmers and seem content to be buffeted by currents and swells. By living in mature kelp forests near shore the sea dragon is protected from the worst of the ocean movement and cross-shore currents. However they are still vulnerable to storms because unlike seahorses they cannot curl their tail and grasp seaweed to stay safe. In an environment without kelp the leafy seadragon would certainly be highly vulnerable given it’s extravagant shape.
As with the seahorse, the male looks after the eggs. Males have a brood patch underneath the tail where the female lays around 250 bright pink eggs; males with eggs are spotted by divers usually around November and December. The males incubate them and release the juveniles into the water after 4-5 weeks. They reach full size after two years and probably live up to ten years, although only 5% of the original batch of eggs will grow to maturity. Fully grown leafy seadragons are between 20-35 cm long. Although they have no teeth, they are carnivorous and suck up mysid shrimps (sea lice) using its long pipe-like snout and small mouth.
With a conservation status of ‘near threatened’ leafy sea dragons have been taken from the ocean by collectors and for use in alternative medicine, they’ve also been impacted by industrial run off. The Australian authorities and divers are working hard to find out more about these amazing creatures and how to better protect them. The leafy sea dragon is the official marine emblem of South Australia.