Melbourne Odds and Ends

The trip to the Aquarium — the wonderful seadragons

Common seadragon, also called a weedy seadragon (Photo copright: Anne Lawson)
Common seadragon, also called a weedy seadragon (Photo copright: Anne Lawson, March 2013)
Leafy seadragon (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)
Leafy seadragon (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson, March 2013)

As you know I have been fascinated with some creatures at the Melbourne Aquarium. Last time I wrote about the amazing seahorses. Now I want to tell you about my absolute favourites — the seadragons.

There are two species. My first photo is of the Common Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). It is also called a weedy seadragon, which I think is a much better name. Common is far too common. So, unless I need to be official, I will call it a weedy seadragon, or maybe just weedie. It is the marine emblem of the State of Victoria.

The second photo is of the Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques). What an amazing creature it is!

Both species are in the Syngnathidae family, which means they are related to seahorses. One of the differences between the two is that seahorses are vertical, whereas seadragons move more horizontally, more as you expect fish to move.

I love this description from Helen Scales, in her book Poseidon’s steed. 

“The two species of seadragons are the most outlandish syngnathids of all. These flouncy fish are like seahorses that were invited to a fancy dress party and made an extra special effort with their costumes. Leafy seadragons are naturally festooned in elaborate outfits of green ribbons and streamers….Weedy seadragons are slightly less outrageous with fewer dangling ornaments but still they put on an eye-catching display, with banana yellow freckles and electric blue racing stripes.” (p. 44)

Leafy seadragon, off to the fancy dress ball! (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)
A leafy seadragon off to the fancy dress ball! (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson, March 2013)

Both species of seadragons are endemic to the waters of southern Australia. They float gently in  sea grasses and kelp beds, beautifully camouflaged by their outrageous appendages. However, unlike the seahorses, their tails do not grip sea weed. They are poor swimmers, only having small fins, on the spine and a set behind their head. Seadragons are more likely to be found washed up on beaches after storms than seahorses, as they are buffeted by the surging waters.

Electric blue racing stripes. You can just see the fins on its back and behind its gills. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)
Electric blue racing stripes. (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson, March 2013)

It is the male that hatches the eggs. However, instead of the seahorses’ pouch, the female lays her eggs on the tail of the male. He then carries them until they hatch.  There is a must-watch video, at this link to the Australian Museum. It shows the elegant courtship of the weedies, and then the hatching of the eggs. As an added incentive, it is narrated by David Attenborough. The weedies are just so beautifully graceful! Check it out. (The images are much clearer than my photos!)

I am in love with these beautiful creatures! And I am very pleased that some of their habitats are protected by national parks and marine sanctuaries. We need the weedies and the leafies in our world.

(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)
(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson, March 2013)
Melbourne Uncategorized

Further adventures at the aquarium

(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

Most of my time at the Melbourne Aquarium was spent in the section of seahorses, seadragons and pipe fish. I stood and watched for ages. (Apologies in advance about the quality of the photos. They were taken through glass, and while seahorses don’t dart around, they can move more quickly than this photographer would like!)

You can see why the seahorses have caught my fancy. They are delightful little creatures.

A little about seahorses (but please stop me if I go on too long!)

They are fish, and live in three main habitats — seagrasses, corals and mangroves. They belong to the Syngnathidae family, in reference to their fixed jaws (syn — Greek for “with” or “together”; gnathos — “jaw”.) Seadragons and pipefish are in the same family. The genus of seahorses is hippocampus. The big-belly seahorse has the grand name of Hippocampus abdominalis. But my favourite might be Hippocampus guttulatus or the long-snout seahorse.

Good camouflage! (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

They are only small, ranging from a species that is about 2 cms (fancy that!) to the big-belly seahorse which is around 30 cms. Theirs is a solitary life, except at mating time, and they don’t travel far. When they do move they use their tiny, transparent fins and then attach themselves to seaweed. They could be easy prey, but have two defensive adaptations. Firstly, unlike other fish they don’t have scales. Instead they have bony plates. It gives them their distinctive shape and makes them unappetizing to other fish.

Bony plates make seahorses difficult to swallow
Bony plates and spikes make seahorses difficult to swallow (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

The other adaptation is their excellent camouflage. To escape the predator they blend into the background, often mimicking the colours around them.

They might be hard to see, but there are at least five seahorses in this photo!
They might be hard to see, but there are at least five seahorses in this photo! (Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

They eat zooplankton, which they suck up through their snouts. It seems like a hard way to get a meal, but they can eat really quickly.

Of course, the seahorses’ real claim to fame is that the fathers get pregnant, nurture the young in an adapted pouch and give birth to the live little ones. (Are baby seahorses called ‘foals’?)

(Photo copyright: Anne Lawson)

Like so many species they are under threat in the wild. They are hunted to be used in Chinese medicine — at least 70 tonnes or 25 million seahorses a year, according to one source I read. Trawling for shrimp is another danger. There is so much wastage, as species other than shrimps get caught up too. For every kilo of shrimp an additional 5 to 10 kilos of other species are dragged to the surface. Trawling also does long term damage to the sea bed, especially in the shallower waters which are the seahorses’ habitat. Add warming of the oceans to that list, and you can see that these wondrous little creatures need help to survive.

(Photo copyright Anne Lawson)


(My information has come from a charming book Poseidon’s steed: the story of seahorse, from myth to reality, by Helen Scales. However, any mistakes that I have made in this post are all my own!)