Meet Nessie the sea dragon. No, she’s not the monster that has popularized a certain Scottish loch, but is in fact a very real animal related to seahorses and pipefish that roams the weedy beds off the coast of Australia. Like a dragon, Nessie has a plated body to protect herself. She is one of the masters of camouflage, a method of crypsis many animals use to conceal themselves from predators.
There are two types of sea dragons, the leafy sea dragon and the weedy sea dragon. Nessie is a leafy seadragon, and indeed she looks just like a leaf to blend into her seaweedy surroundings, swaying in the water to heighten the masquerade.
Nessie spends much of her life floating happily in the seaweed beds, sucking up microscopic food out of the water with her long snout. In fact, sea dragons have been observed to remain in one location for up to 68 hours, just eating. But when it comes to courting a male, she departs her rather mundane life of plankton-slurping and embarks on an epic romance. Well, epic for a fish.
When it comes time to find a partner, sea dragons perform a special courtship dance in spring under the fading light of sunset. In the video below, Nessie and her mate mirror each other’s every movement in this elaborate courtship ritual.
Perhaps you wouldn’t normally think of fish as being hopeless romantics, but it gets even stranger. After the courtship ritual is complete, the male is “pregnant.” Like the sea dragon’s cousin, the seahorse, the male protects and provides for the eggs during their development. You see, the dragon dance is not just a dance. During the courtship ritual, the female lays 150 to 200 eggs in an area under the male’s tail called a brood patch. The father’s blood feeds the eggs for two months, then the eggs hatch and fully formed baby sea dragons emerge, ready to brave the world completely without aid from either parent. Seahorses, sea dragons, and pipefish are the only fish species in which the males carry and raise the young.
These special fish are subject to many threats, but the sea dragon is an example of a conservation success story. In the early 1990s the Australian government placed a complete protection on sea dragons (the leafy sea dragon is the official marine emblem of the state of South Australia), and since then their numbers have risen so that they are now classified as “near threatened.” To raise awareness and celebrate these strange yet beautiful animals, a biennial Leafy Sea Dragon Festival is held in South Australia and an animated short film was made in 2006 and distributed to all primary schools in the state. Weedy sea dragons’ populations are monitored in Australia as well. Because of their uniqueness and the intrigue they provide for many people, sea dragons could become “flagship” animals, which are animals that humans have an emotional attachment to, such as panda bears and elephants. Flagship species are often used by conservation efforts in order to encourage more people to join their cause.
Hopefully, with the efforts of Australians and other conservationists, Nessie the sea dragon will enter the hearts of more people around the world. Perhaps then we can focus more of our attention on preserving unique and special animals like sea dragons than the other, admittedly more enigmatic but fictional loch-dwelling Nessie.
McCall, Gerrie. Weird and Wonderful Fish. Nature’s Monsters, Water Creatures Series. Gareth Stevens, 2005.
Ghostly “Dance of a Sea Dragon,” BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8330000/8330705.stm
“Sea Dragon,” National Geographic: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/fish/sea-dragon/
“Phyllopteryx,” Wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllopteryx