Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm and Tours | Kona Hawaii › Forums › Seahorse Life and Care › Ghost Pipefish / Seadragon Research? › Ghosts & Dragons
To my knowledge, sir, neither the Ocean Rider aquaculture facility, nor any other such facilities, nor any zoos or public aquariums in the United States are currently working with the ghost pipefish.
Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomidae) have proven to be very difficult to obtain, difficult to transport alive, and extremely challenging to keep healthy even when they arrive in good condition and acclimate to the aquarium well. Even professional aquarists with state-of-the-art facilities at large public aquariums have given up on keeping these animals. The ghost pipefish typically arrive DOA on the rare occasions when they are available at all, and the few specimens that reached the curators in good shape subsequently die within a few days of arrival. In fact, the record for keeping a ghost pipefish in captivity is a single specimen that survived for a mere 32 days in the aquarium with professional care. As a result, zoos and public aquariums have all virtually given up attempting to keep and display these magnificent relatives of the seahorse. That’s a shame, because some of the ghost pipes have spectacular multi-hued psychedelic color patterns that have to be seen to be believed!
Fortunately, the situation is not nearly so grim with the seadragons, Don. I share your fascination with seadragons, as I imagine most seahorse keepers do — they are surely about the most exotic, spectacular aquarium specimens unimaginable!
Carol Cozzi-Schmarr and her husband Craig Schmarr have an ongoing breeding program for dragons at Ocean Rider, and rearing protocols for both the Leafy and Weedy Seadragons are under development at their aquaculture facility in Kona, Hawaii, as well as at several zoos and large public aquaria that house captive populations of the dragons. For example, as I recall, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach California has successfully raised two broods of weedy dragons in captivity and, at last report, the yearlings were even eating frozen food. I believe José Gomezjurado may also be working with captive-bred seadragons. But progress has been slow, and successful breeding in captivity has been very rare thus far, so these must be considered long-term projects aimed at the goal of someday raising domesticated dragons for zoos and public aquaria.
Rearing seadragons fry is actually straightforward and has not proven to be an obstacle at all. In fact, all of the seadragons currently on public display around the world were raised in captivity. However, this has been accomplished by procuring gravid males and allowing them to give birth in the aquarium. The adult males are then released back into the wild, and the resulting seadragon fry are raised using techniques very similar to the way seahorse fry are raised.
Closing the life cycle with seadragons has however proven to be extremely difficult. The domesticated dragons pair off, court, and breed in captivity fairly well, but successful egg transfers are rarely if ever accomplished. The females will ripen eggs and dutifully attempt to transfer them to receptive males, but for some as yet undetermined reason, the eggs almost always fail to adhere to the brood patch on the ventral surface of the male. It is this problem that is holding back captive breeding programs for seadragons.
These magnificent animals are the largest, fanciest, strangest and most fascinating of the seahorse’s relatives and a wonder to behold. For seahorse lovers, getting up close and personal with Seadragons is the ultimate experience, and I know hobbyists who have planned their entire vacations around the opportunity to visit an aquarium where seahorses and dragons were on display, often travelling thousands of miles for that rare privilege. For us hard-core fish fanatics and aficionados of aquatic equines, that’s better than a trip to Disney World any day.
The spectacular Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques) is surely the most ornate of all fishes and the most splendid example of protective mimicry one could ever imagine. Textbooks dryly describe the fabulous finnage of these mythical marvels as “lobate and spiny processes” extending from the body. In plain English that merely means that Phycodorus eques has developed extravagant, branching leaflike appendages all around the margins of its body. Twigs of this fantastic fleshy foliage sprout from its snout, its crest, and its rib cage, adding to its masterful disguise. So intricate, elaborate and profuse are these delicate leafy structures that they resemble the exquisite patterns of fine lacework doilies.
In short, the Leafy Seadragon looks like the result of some diabolical experiment in genetic engineering that involved splicing the genes of a seahorse with those of a seaweed. Only in this case the experiment seems to have gone slightly awry, yielding a chimerical creation that’s roughly 80% clump of Sargassum and only about 20% seahorse! Words simply don’t do it justice — only a photograph could begin to capture the intricate elegance of this miracle of evolution.
The Weedy Seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), which grows to a length of 18 inches (46 cm), is another equally outrageous oddity of nature. It is not as fancy as the Leafy Seadragon but it is even longer and more colorful. Weedies have relatively sparse, wispy appendages but are adorned with bright yellow and red colors, which are crossed by several diagonal violet bars and often further augmented by a constellation of silvery-white dots adorning its dark midsection. The specimens from deeper water seem to have the most striking coloration, featuring intense reds and purples. When courting and mating, the diagonal bars become a brilliant fluorescent purple that all but glows.
My favorite description of the Seadragon’s bizarre beauty was penned by the Rev. J. E. Tenison-Wood in “Fish and Fisheries of New South Wales:”
[open quote] “It is the ghost of a Sea Horse, with its winding-sheet all in ribbons around it, and even as a ghost it seems in the very last stages of emaciation, literally all skin and grief. The process of development by which the fish attained to such a state must be the most miserable chapter in the history of natural selection. If this be the survival of the fittest, it is easy to understand what has become of the rest. . . . Never did the famishing spectres of the ancient mariner’s experience present such painful spectacles. If these creatures be horses, they must be the lineal descendents of those which were trained to live on nothing, but unfortunately perished ere the experiment had quite concluded.
“The odd thing about these strange fishes is that their tattered cerements are like in shape and color to the seaweeds they frequent, so they hide and feed with safety. Thus the long ends of ribs which seem to poke through the skin to excite our compassion are really protective resemblances, and serve to allure the prey more effectually within reach of these awful ghouls. . . . If this is [evolutionary] development, it stopped here only just in time; one step more and it would have been a bunch of kelp.” [end quote]
Both of these spectacular species are native to the Wonderful Land of Oz. The Leafy and the Weedy Seadragon inhabit the temperate waters of southern Australia.
Like the male seahorse, the male seadragon carries the eggs, but in the case of the dragons, the males don’t get pregnant or undergo labor pains and birth spasms. They merely carry the eggs on the underside of their tails and ferry the embryonic young about until they hatch. The male seadragon lacks a pouch and the female simply glues the exposed eggs to a special place on the ventral surface of the male’s tail for safekeeping, where they embed partially.
Wild-caught Seadragons are fragile creatures that find the captive environment very stressful, and therefore only tank-raised specimens are sold for public display nowadays. The wild dragons proved so skittish that simply turning the room lights on or off in the display hall was often a deadly disruption for them. The sudden change in light intensity would send the delicate deep-water dragons careening around their tank in a blind panic and they would injure themselves by crashing into the sides of the aquarium or broach the surface and gulp air with fatal consequences. Flash photography from well-meaning visitors who hoped to capture an image of the fantastic fishes as a memento of their visit to the aquarium could produce the same result.
Tank-raised specimens are much more at home in the aquarium and have no such problems. Provided with pale night lights and dimmer switches on the light fixtures, they do quite well in the aquarium. As a result, the domesticated dragons now live as long as 9-10 years with good care (Warland, pers. comm.). Many of the domesticated dragons will readily accept frozen Mysis.
Before you get too excited, however, I should point out that domesticated dragons are completely beyond the reach of the home hobbyist. They are very costly animals and require very large, deep enclosures with carefully directed water currents in order to thrive. So unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to pay an architect to build a new house for you designed around your seadragon system, our dream of keeping domesticated ‘dragons in our living rooms will have to remain just that — a favorite fantasy.
But don’t despair — there’s another way to live out such a fantasy that’s the next best thing. The good news is that when hardy, captive raised Seadragons that are accustomed to aquarium life become readily available, there isn’t a zoo or public aquarium in the country that won’t want to display them. Before long, we will no longer have to worship Seadragons from afar or plan a special summer vacation just to get a quick glimpse of them for they are sure to be on exhibit somewhere near to us all. Soon we’ll be able to visit them, observing them at our leisure and admiring their majesty and grace as often as we like.
That’s the current status of domesticated dragons, Don. They are tremendously popular display animals, and before long most everyone will be able to enjoy them at their local zoo or the nearest public aquarium. Leafy Seadragons will probably never be practical for the home hobbyist; they simply require too much depth and swimming space. Weedy Seadragons, on the other hand, can be kept in smaller, shallower aquaria with proper care, and it may some day be feasible for a dedicated hobbyists to keep juvenile weedies in a home aquarium. But first the aquaculturists will have to overcome the sticky problem of those egg transfers…
Best wishes with all your fishes, Don!
Pete Giwojna, Ocean Rider Tech Support