The mystical leafy sea dragon, Phycodurus eques, is proudly South Australia’s marine emblem and attracts global attention for its iconic camouflage, even by David Attenborough himself, claiming it is his favourite animal in the wild. This rare species is only found on the coast of southern and eastern Australia, and masquerades as seaweed using its slow pace and leaf-like structures to ward off predators.
With a menacing name like the leafy sea dragon, it comes as a surprise the creature is no larger than 35cm (National Geographic, 2020). Leafies are closely related to pipefish and seahorses, and much like seahorses, the males carry and give birth to their young. Given the mating process is quite a spectacle, divers time their visits between October and January to see the elaborate courtship. While mating, the females transfer roughly 250 bright pink eggs into ‘brood-patches’ on the underside of their tails. The eggs are then fertilised and carried by the male for four to six weeks. Given their protective appearance, there is no need for the hatchlings to be raised, so the miniature dragons are left to defend themselves.
Sea dragons survive on microorganisms such as sea lice, using their tubelike snouts. It is unknown if they are preyed upon by other animals. However, the majestic creatures were collected by divers in the early 1990’s to be kept as pets so frequently that the Australian government placed a complete protection on the species. Pollution and habitat loss have also depleted their numbers, and they are now listed as near threatened.
100km South of Adelaide is Rapid Bay, a notorious spot for divers to see the dragon (Buxton-Collins, 2018). Visitors swim between a new jetty created in 2009 to a decayed jetty that is no longer functional for people, but below the surface it is a thriving home for marine life. If you’re considering seeing the elusive creature in person, take caution to avoid stressing the gentle sea dragons while observing them in all their glory.
Buxton-Collins, A. (2018, 4 20). How to track down David Attenborough's favourite animal in the wild. Retrieved from The Upsider: https://theupsider.com.au/leafy-seadragon-snorkelling/7485
National Geographic. (2020). Leafy Sea Dragon. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/l/leafy-sea-dragon/