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Marine Species: the Leafy Seadragon

Popularly known as ‘leafies’ the leafy seadragon is part of the Syngnathidae family, which also includes seahorses and pipefish.


The leafy seadragon

Indigenous to the south coast of Australia, you can’t find the leafy seadragon anywhere else in the world. Perfectly camouflaged to look like a piece of floating seaweed, the leafy seadragon is one of the best adaptively camouflaged species in the world. Leafies mate for life. They spend much of their time in pairs, in a small area of kelp forest around 30 feet by 30 feet (10 m x 10 m). Repeat divers to the same area will often see the same seadragons living, between 16 to 50 feet (5 to 15 m) deep.

Slender and pipelike with floating leaf-shaped protrusions, leafy seadragons are not great swimmers. Mature kelp forests near shore protect the seadragon from the worst of the ocean movement and cross-shore currents. They are still vulnerable to storms, however. Unlike seahorses, they cannot curl their tail and grasp seaweed to stay safe. In an environment without kelp the leafy seadragon is highly vulnerable.

Behavior of the leafy seadragon

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. Divers usually spot males with eggs in 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. Only 5 percent 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 seadragons have been taken from the ocean by collectors and for use in alternative medicine. Industrial run-off also impacts this species. 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.

By guest author Jemma Macfadyen