Close kin to seahorses, leafy sea dragons don't live on tropical reefs, but in the cooler rocky reefs off South and Western Australia. There, these rare fish, with their leaflike fins and frilly appendages, are perfectly camouflaged among seaweeds and seagrass beds. They're nearly impossible to spot among the plants as they slowly sway back and forth with the current.
Leafy sea dragons eat small shrimplike animals that live among the weeds. Sea dragons' tubelike mouths work like drinking straws; a hungry dragon waits until its prey ventures near, then slurps it up. Each day, a single sea dragon may slurp up thousands of its prey.
The seagrass and seaweed beds in Western Australia, where leafy sea dragons live, are under increasing threat from pollution and excessive fertilizer runoff. Leafy sea dragons have no known predators, but they have become the target of unscrupulous collectors who have stripped bare many areas in search of sea dragons to sell to the pet trade and for use in Asian medicines. Sport divers, eager to photograph these rare and beautiful animals, often chase and harass leafy sea dragons in an attempt to get the perfect picture.
Leafy sea dragons are protected in both South and Western Australia, and additional laws are being considered to provide further protection from harassment. The South Australian government allows one brooding male to be collected each year. The captive-bred hatchlings are sent overseas for education and research programs such as ours here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
As with their seahorse kin, male leafy sea dragons carry their mate's eggs until the eggs hatch.