Leafy sea dragon
The fish that looks like a plant
The leafy sea dragon (Phycodurus eques), is a marine fish related to the seahorse. It is the only member of the genus Phycodurus. It is found in the ocean waters of southern Western Australia, South Australia and further east along the coastline of Victoria province, Australia.
These fish live over sand patches among kelp-covered rocks below the low tide line in depths ranging from 3 to 50 m. The leafy sea dragon or Glauerts seadragon derives its common name from the leaf-like appendages on the body.
Sea dragons are arguably the most spectacular and mysterious of all ocean fish. Though close relatives of sea horses, sea dragons have larger bodies and leaf-like appendages which enable them to hide among floating seaweed or kelp beds. Sea dragons feed on larval fishes and amphipods, and small shrimp-like crustaceans called mysids ('sea lice'), sucking up their prey in their small mouths. Many of these amphipods feed on the red algae that thrive in the shade of the kelp forests where the sea dragons live.
The leafy sea dragon has a long pipe-like snout with a small terminal mouth. Its camouflage is so effective that neither prey nor predators recognize it as a fish.
Leafy Sea Dragons are very interesting to watch - the leafy appendages are not used for movement. The body of a sea dragon scarcely appears to move at all. Steering and turning is through movement of tiny, translucent fins along the sides of the head (pectoral fins) and propulsion derives from the dorsal fins (along the spine). Their movement is as though an invisible hand was helping, causing them to glide and tumble in peculiar but graceful patterns in slow-motion. This movement appears to mimic the swaying movements of the seaweed and kelp.
Unlike seahorses, sea dragons do not have a pouch for rearing the young. Instead, the male carries the eggs fixed to the underside of his tail from where they eventually hatch.
The leafy sea dragon is the official marine emblem of the state of South Australia.
Your chances of seeing one in the wild
Sea dragons are protected under Australian law, and their export is strictly regulated. A 1996 assessment by the Australian government's Department of Environmental Heritage indicates the leafy sea dragon 'is now completely protected in South Australia because demand for aquarium specimens threatened the species with extinction'.
Leafy sea dragons are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.