Leafy Sea Dragons; December 1998; Scientific American Magazine; by Groves; 6 Page(s)
The water is clear, calm and dark. As I drop off the rear of the boat with my fellow divers into the icy water, a chill runs up my spine--both from the cold and from my growing sense of anticipation. We are night diving in the Southern Ocean off the southwestern coast of Australia, in search of creatures that sound almost mythical. We are hunting for dragons--More precisely, leafy sea dragons. And for our breeding program at Underwater World Perth, we want to catch a male--a pregnant male.
The leafy sea dragon (Phycodurus eques) and its more common cousin, the weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), are the only sea dragons in the world. Along with sea horses and pipefish, they are members of the family Syngnathidae, fish characterized by a hard external skeleton arranged as a series of rings around the animal¿s body and by a long tubular snout with no teeth. Sea dragons are distinctive in that frondlike appendages branch out from their armor-plated bodies. As befits their names, the leafy sea dragons¿ appendages are broader and flatter than the more stringy ones of the weedy dragons. Both creatures are endemic to the southern Australian coastline. The waters off the islands of the Archipelago of the Recherche where we are diving are a favorite haunt for sea dragons. These huge, sparsely vegetated granite islands are a refuge for an amazing array of exotic animals, some of them found nowhere else in the world. Beneath the waves, the vertical granite faces plunge for hundreds of meters into the inky depths.