Re:Leafy seadragons

Pete Giwojna

Dear Don:

You’re very welcome. Yes, sir, I completely agree — seadragons are indeed magnificent animals!

As you know, seadragons are fully protected and have been for some time now. At the present, only one or two persons are licensed to procure gravid males in order to culture their fry. All of the domesticated dragons on display around the world come from these one or two sources. When new captive raised dragons are available, special permits are required in order to import and keep them, and these are not granted to individuals or private parties, but rather to institutions — zoos, public aquaria, and aquaculture facilities that have the resources and expertise to provide the dragons with the care they require. So there is presently no legal way for you to acquire or own a seadragon.

That reality is unlikely to change, Don. The facilities that are displaying, holding and studying seadragons now and attempting to work out effective breeding and rearing protocols for these fabulous fishes are not in any way targeting the ornamental fish industry or pet trade. Rather, their efforts are aimed at ensuring the future survival of these exotic animals and meeting the demand for captive raised specimens among zoos, public aquaria and research facilities.

So even if the problem of successful egg transfers was solved tomorrow, and it became relatively commonplace for domestic dragons to breed successfully in captivity, allowing Ocean Rider, for example, to close the life cycle with leafy and weedy seadragons, the captive-bred-and-raised specimens that resulted would not be a made available to the public. The cost of the domesticated dragons themselves, and the custom-made aquaria needed to keep them successfully, would both be quite prohibitive for the home hobbyist.

A 400 gallon aquarium might be acceptable for displaying a few juveniles seadragons temporarily, but you can bet that those display animals are rotated on a regular basis into a much larger holding tank several times that size. Mature seadragons require much larger accommodations, with the height of the aquarium being especially important.

Those leafy appendages that make the dragons so fancy and exotic-looking are easily damaged if they come in contact with the walls of the tank or the aquarium substrate. So a dragon den needs to be spacious enough, and the circulation sufficiently controlled, that it prevents them from bumping into the walls of their enclosure. In addition, the dragons are prone to "piping" or broaching the surface with their heads and snouts when they are spooked or distressed. Exposure to the air during episodes of piping causes serious health problem for the seadragons, so the aquarium needs to be tall enough to help prevent this type of porpoising behavior.

Aside from "piping" problems, breeding in seadragons involves coordinated vertical movements between the partners similar to the copulatory rise in seahorses, and quite a number of seadragon captive breeding attempts have been disrupted by coming in contact with the surface. So it’s imperative that dragon dens have sufficient height to allow them to mate comfortably.

As a result, I would say that the minimum height for a seadragon tank would be 6 feet tall, particularly if breeding is a concern, and most of the facilities that work with dragons would consider such a tank to be entirely too short. So realistically, when designing a deluxe dragon den, you’re talking about an aquarium over 6 feet tall that’s way above 1000 gallons in total water volume.

Obviously, you can’t get such a tank off the shelf at your local fish store. Aquaria like that must be custom-made, and because of their depths, they require very thick panes of glass or acrylic. The filtration systems require heavy-duty pumps and compressors that can handle that kind of head pressure. So a dragon’s lair is not something you can just slip into your bedroom, or find a nice spot for in your living room or den. In order to accommodate a tank that size, and the filtration system needed to support it, a room of your house would basically have to be designed and built around the aquarium.

An aquarium system like that is just never going to be practical for the home hobbyist. Even if you could afford the expense and work out the logistics involved, there is the matter of cleaning and maintaining an aquarium of those dimensions. Those are the type of tanks you pretty much have to go swimming in in order to clean properly.

For all practical purposes, having a dragon den of your own will have to remain a distant dream, Don. There are reams of material available on the care and aquarium requirements of seadragons, and I would be happy to pass along some of the information if you like, so you can satisfy your curiosity and see what I’m talking about, but for now designing your own Dragon’s Lair would be just a theoretical exercise.

Best wishes with all of your fishes, sir!

Happy Trails!
Pete Giwojna

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