The leafy sea dragon is a unique marine fish with a mysterious and striking appearance. It belongs to the genus Phycodurus, and is a relative of sea horses and pipefish. The average life span of this sea animal is about 5 to 10 years.
The most distinguishing feature of this exotic marine fish is the characteristic leaf-like projections arising out of its body. It usually grows up to a length of 30 to 35 cm, and is a bit larger than its relative, the weedy sea dragon. Its body is brown or yellow, while the leaf-like appendages are olive green in color.
It has a long snout, which looks like a pipe. Its movement is facilitated by a pair of fins, which are known as the pectoral and dorsal fin. The pectoral fin is located on the ridge of the neck, while the dorsal fin is located on the thin tail. Unlike sea horses, it cannot use its tail for gripping. It has a small mouth that does not contain any teeth.
This sea dragon looks like a seaweed floating in water, because of its peculiar leaf-like protrusions. These leafy appendages give it a fascinating look, and enable it to camouflage, or conceal itself in the surrounding environment. These protrusions not only help the animal evade its predators but also catch its prey. This spectacular fish can also change the color of its body. However, this special ability depends on the age, location, and the diet of the sea dragon.
Food and Habitat
It mainly feeds on crustaceans and plankton, though at times, it can consume mysids, shrimp, and small fish, especially the larval fish as well. This sea dragon is generally found in the oceans of Australia, mainly in the western and the southern part of the country.
Earlier, it was thought that this marine fish was found only in a limited range. But further studies revealed that this animal can travel a long distance from its habitat, and then return to the same spot owing to its strong sense of direction.
The leafy sea dragon generally attains sexual maturity by the age of 2 years. The female lays about 250 pink-colored eggs, and then places them on the tail of the male, as the male sea dragon is responsible for childbearing. So, the eggs remain attached to the brood patch present beneath the tail of the male sea dragon. The brood patch consists of small cups for holding the eggs. The eggs are fertilized when the female transfers them to the male.
The male carries the eggs on its tail until they hatch. The time taken for hatching depends on the water conditions, though usually a period of nine months is required. Once hatched, the young ones become independent, and feed on zooplankton or rotifers (minute aquatic multicellular organisms) and copepods (minute crustaceans).
Even a slight change in water pressure can have an adverse effect on these marine animals. Some man-made factors are also responsible for a sharp decline in their numbers. For example, many people use these fish in alternative medicine, while others collect them for their mesmerizing beauty.
Pollution, especially the discharge of industrial waste into the sea, is another important factor responsible for a decline in the number of sea dragons. Currently, this sea dragon is protected by the Australian government under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999. This fish is presently categorized as a near threatened species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which highlights the importance of undertaking more conservation efforts to protect this marine fish from man-made threats.