Under the Sea — April 8, 2015 at 5:00 am

Medieval Marvels: Leafy Sea Dragons

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In a land of witches and wizards, warlocks and wise men, dragons lurk in the fictional shadows. While the dragons flaunted on HBO don’t exist in reality, our oceans are home to an equally mesmerizing beast; however, you’d be hard-pressed to find any “fire-breathing” twenty-feet under the sea.

Masters of Disguise
The leafy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) is a distant cousin of the seahorse, sharing much of the same ecological niches. However, at first glance, there’s one anatomical feature that sets them apart from any hydrophilic equine—they’re well-camouflaged, elaborate exterior. Leafy sea dragons, because of their lethargic and slow moving nature, have evolved an almost immaculate defense amongst would-be predators; that defense is, quite simply, deception. One look at a nine-inch sea dragon and you’re immediately left questioning, “…where’s its body?” Underneath their embellished exterior, their bodies are quite reminiscent of their seahorse kin; they possess the same funnel-shaped jaw structure, prehensile tail, and elongated neck.

From The Land Down Under
Leafy sea dragons are only endemic to the cool waters of southern Australia, floating effortlessly amongst the ocean’s kelp beds. And, when they decide to “anchor down,” if you will, they’ll grip on to vegetative bodies with their prehensile-like tail. And, it’s during these sedentary moments that they’ll prey on the near-microscopic mysides, commonly known as sea lice, and other like-sized invertebrates floating about the surf.

The Paternal Package
Like seahorses, male sea dragons are tasked with lugging around their offspring—but not nearly in the same manner. Because sea dragons aren’t equipped with the same paternal “fanny pack” as male seahorses, they instead tot around a spongy underside that will house the mated pair’s fertile young until they’ve fully developed. And, to even further romanticize their medieval connotation, a female sea dragon’s unfertilized eggs are bright, almost jewel-like pink.

Witch-hunted To Near Extinction
Because of their mystical exterior, leafy sea dragons were nearly harvested to extinction by novice divers who thought they could care for the two-foot aquatic dragons in home aquariums. Needless to say, the majority were unsuccessful. However, because of the near-scare, the Australian government placed protective policies on both the leafy and weedy in the mid-1990’s.

And, with the backing of the country’s government, here’s hoping they’ll be mystifying the masses for generations to come.

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