- This topic has 4 replies, 3 voices, and was last updated 17 years, 5 months ago by nigelseahorse.
April 19, 2006 at 6:47 pm #798dongeddisMember
I saw the leafy (and weedy) seadragons at the Birch aquarium in San Diego. I\’m aware that these are only found in southern Australia, and are endangered. Nevertheless, I\’m interested in some day attempting to keep one at home.
Does anyone know the progress of captive-raising seadragons? Is anyone (OceanRider?) working on it? The hard part is probably getting the whole breeding cycle and raising fry working, but also nice would be adapting them to eat frozen mysis. Is anyone aware of any progress on such issues with these species?April 20, 2006 at 3:11 pm #2438Pete GiwojnaGuest
I share your fascination with seadragons — they are surely about the most exotic, spectacular aquarium specimens unimaginable!
Yes, sir, both Carol Cozzi-Schmarr and her husband Craig (Ocean Rider in Kona, Hawaii) and Tracy and David Warland (South Australia Seahorse Marine Services in Port Lincoln, Australia) have worked with farm-raised Seadragons. Rearing protocols for both the Leafy and Weedy Seadragons are under development at these aquaculture facilities, as well as at several zoos and large public aquaria that house captive populations of the dragons. 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 larger 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, your dream of keeping domesticated ‘dragons in your living room will have to remain just that — a favorite fantasy.
But don’t despair — there’s another way to live out your 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. If 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 GiwojnaApril 20, 2006 at 3:45 pm #2439dongeddisGuest
Wow, what a fabulous and detailed answer. These wonderful animals are farther along in captivity than I expected. Raising fry just fine, eating frozen mysis, pair bonding and getting pregnant. What a shame that they are just one small unknown trick away from complete captive success!
Can I ask you for some more details about the "beyond the reach of the home hobbyist" part? I won’t claim to be independently wealthy, but I could consider building a custom species-specific tank.
The leafy seadragons that I saw (a year ago…) at Birch in San Diego were kept in a large tank, but not one so large as to be out of reach of the home. IIRC, it was something like a corner bow tank, perhaps a few hundred gallons in size. I’d be surprised if it was more than 400 gallons. Yes, that’s a large tank — but not impossible for the home.
I think, despite your efforts at being reasonable, you’ve gotten me more excited than I was. Is there some way I could learn more about the exact captive-care requirements of the species (esp. the leafy ones)? Even if I built a proper tank, where would the animals come from? Is it legally permitted for me to have one in a home, if I’m not a public aquarium of some kind?
I’m very encouraged by your report that the current public display animals were captive-raised (if not bred), and that they eat frozen food. I hope you’ll indulge me in at least one more step of why this is such a bad idea for my home :-). After all, the animals are absolutely [u]magnificent[/u].
Thanks so much,
— DonApril 26, 2006 at 5:43 pm #2462Pete GiwojnaGuest
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!
Pete GiwojnaApril 29, 2006 at 3:16 am #2471nigelseahorseGuest
I to am interested in these exotic wonders. I saw them in the Georgia Aquarium(the whole aquarium is amazing it has a huge reef tank too) anyway,but the tank had at leat 20 leafy and weedy seadragons. When you mean by costly about how costly would a 300or 400gallon tank with sand, lighting, filteration, fake kelp, salt, water conditioners, and of course the dragons(leafy or weedy but I like leafy seadragons better) ? I dont think any dragons will be in my house any time soon but you never know. I’m just curious about these guys.
Post edited by: nigelseahorse, at: 2006/04/28 23:17
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