Phycodurus eques (leafy seadragon), or Phycodurus eques as it is also known, lives in temperate waters exclusively off the southern coast of Australia as does its nearest relative, Phyllopteryx taeniolatus (weedy seadragon) (Dragon Search 2000; Wheeler 1975).
Biogeographic Regions: australian (Native )
The extent of occurrence can be approximated as the length of coastline along which it occurs (~ 14,000 km) and the width of the strip of habitat suitable for it to occupy along this coastline (less than 1 km in most places, and for this calculation assumed to be 0.1 km wide). The extent of occurrence is therefore estimated to be 1,400 km². Seadragons have been sighted at numerous locations within the range but it is impossible to determine how fragmented occurrence is. Total area of occupancy is possibly less than 2,000 km² (given the approximate extent of occurrence calculated above), but at this time is unknown.
The depth range of Leafy Seadragons is not well documented. Most reported encounters are with divers, and therefore necessarily in waters less than about 20 m. Seadragons have, however, been recorded down to 30 m in SA, WA and VIC (Kuiter 2000b).
- Gomon, M.F. and F.J. Neira 1998 Syngnathidae: pipefishes and seahorses. p. 122-131. In F.J. Neira, A.G. Miskiewicz and T. Trnski (eds.) Larvae of temperate Australian fishes: laboratory guide for larval fish identification. University of Western Australia Press. 474 p. (Ref. 31838)
P. eques can grow to be 50 cm but averages 30 cm in length (Dragon Search 2000; Groves 1998; Zahl 1978). Typical of Syngnathidae, P. eques exhibits a series of hard, exoskeletal rings around its entire body and a toothless tube-like snout (Groves 1998). Broad, flat appendages resembling seaweed branch from the plates surrounding the body (Groves 1998). Amidst these appendages on the sides of the body are several sharp spines that aid in defense against predators (Dragon Search 2000). The frond-like appendages and thin body vary on adults from green to yellow-brown to light brown; some have thin white lines radiating from the eye and extending over the body (Dragon Search 2000; Wheeler 1975). Color variation occurs and depends on age, location, diet, and environmental stressors (Dragon Search 2000).
Other Physical Features: bilateral symmetry
- Kuiter, R.H. 1993 Coastal fishes of south-eastern Australia. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu, Hawaii. 437 p. (Ref. 9002)
Living at depths of 5 to 15 meters, P. eques resides in areas with clear water, lower light conditions, and prominent vegetation. Such areas include seagrass meadows, seaweed beds, and rocky reefs (Dragon Search 2000; Groves 1998).
Aquatic Biomes: reef ; coastal
Habitat and Ecology
Leafy Seadragons tracked over periods of up to 10 days typically remained within well-defined home ranges of up to 5 ha (Connolly et al. 2002b). Patterns of movement are characterised by short bursts (at average velocities of 2–17 m/h) punctuating long periods (up to 68 h) without movement. No diel pattern of movement is apparent (Connolly et al. 2002b).
As with other syngnathids, male seadragons carry the fertilized eggs. For Leafy Seadragons, the male carries about 200 eggs on the exposed surface of the underside of its tail (there is no pouch).
This species can survive for at least two to three years in aquaria if supplied with its specific live food requirements (P. Quong, pers. comm. in Pogonoski et al. 2002). Longevity in situ is not known. Phycodurus eques attains a maximum length of about 35 cm (Kuiter 1993).Mating reportedly occurs during summer months (Kuiter 2000b). Genetic structure of populations has not been measured, nor has any aspect of reproduction been quantified (e.g., number of mates, number of broods per season).
Phycodurus eques is particularly well camouflaged, with a number of frond-like appendages that resemble kelp. The species also rocks back and forth with wave action, increasing its resemblance to coastal algae swept by coastal surge (Gomon et al. 1994).
- Kuiter, R.H. 1993 Coastal fishes of south-eastern Australia. University of Hawaii Press. Honolulu, Hawaii. 437 p. (Ref. 9002)
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 1 sample.
Depth range (m): 25 - 37
Temperature range (°C): 18.371 - 18.371
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.171 - 0.171
Salinity (PPS): 36.070 - 36.070
Oxygen (ml/l): 5.271 - 5.271
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.152 - 0.152
Silicate (umol/l): 1.304 - 1.304
Depth range (m): 25 - 37
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
Mimicking surrounding vegetation, P. eques is able to quietly approach its unsuspecting prey (Groves 1998). The fish uses suction to draw food into its mouth, which it opens by expanding a joint on the lower snout. The major staple to the diet of P. eques is mysid shrimp. Plankton and larval fishes, however, are also part of its diet (Dragon Search 2000).
Diseases and Parasites
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Unlike most fish species, in P. eques the male incubates the eggs. The female develops between 200 and 300 eggs. Concurrently, the male forms many capillaries on the tail, which then proceeds to swell, wrinkle, and form about 120 eggcups (Dragon Search 2000). The eggs are then transferred from the female onto the male's tail and fertilized, although little is known exactly how this occurs successfully (Groves 1998). Four weeks is the average incubation period, and hatching occurs over several days to maximize survival rates (Dragon Search 2000; Zahl 1978). For the first few days, a yolk sac provides nutrients. Soon after birth, the newborns are able to swim and hunt successfully. P. eques is approximately 20 mm at birth and grows to 20 cm within one year (Groves 1998). Between one and two years, the fish reaches maturity and can live for seven years in captivity (Groves 1998; Dragon Search 2000). Much of the reproduction, such as yearly breeding frequency, is yet unknown (Groves 1998).
Populations of P. eques have been declining due to both habitat destruction and aquarium harvest. Many conservation efforts including diver education, research efforts, and habitat preservation are currently underway in Australia to protect this species from decline (Dragon Search 2000).
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: near threatened
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Population sizes have probably been reduced marginally through incidental impacts of fishing and the species’ habitat certainly has been adversely affected by pollution. However, these reductions have not been measured and probably represent a small proportion of totals of fish abundances and habitat extent.
Some issues point towards criteria within the Endangered (EN) category, and these points are described below. None of the information provides compelling evidence for trends in occurrence or occupancy, however this is largely due to the absence of data, rather than information that points towards population stability.
The extent of occurrence is estimated to be 1,400 km², which is below the 5,000 km² threshold for EN B1 and well below the 20,000 km² threshold for Vulnerable (VU). Total area of occupancy is possibly less than the VU threshold of 2,000 km² (given the approximate extent of occurrence calculated above), but at this time is unknown. Criterion B2 therefore cannot be used.
EN B1b(iii) (continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat) is met. Seadragon habitat such as algal covered reefs and seagrass meadows are being adversely affected by human activities and loss in quality and quantity of habitat has been documented (Baker 2003). The loss of habitat is most severe near major urban centres (e.g., Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne), where discharge of storm water and treated sewage leads to eutrophication and increased sedimentation. Losses of seagrass have been particularly severe along the metropolitan coasts and are well documented (Short and Wyllie-Echeverria 1996). The threat to seadragons may be lessened to an extent by the occurrence of seadragons at sites distant from these population centres, provided that these areas are biologically connected through movement or dispersal.
Seadragons have been sighted at numerous locations within the range but it is impossible to determine how fragmented occurrence is. Therefore, sub-criterion B1a cannot be used at present.
In summary, the lack of trend data means that seadragons cannot be described as meeting any of the threatened categories at present, but it nearly meets Endangered under criterion B (currently only on sub-criterion (B1b(iii)) is met). Therefore it is assessed as NT.
Continued monitoring is required to establish population trends. Research is also needed to establish areas of occupancy.
- 1996Data Deficient
1. The site at which Connolly et al. (2002a) worked was chosen because relatively frequent sightings had been made there previously. An average density across the distribution would be lower, probably much lower, and a figure of 5 fish per ha was used (approximately 10% of estimate by Connolly et al. (2002a)).
2. The coastline along which Leafy Seadragons occur is an estimated 14,000 km long.
3. The species occurs most frequently in a thin strip of shallow water along the coastline, typically in stands of macroalgae or in seagrass meadows. This strip is estimated to be, on average, 100 m wide, giving a total of 140,000 ha of occupancy.
At 5 fish per ha, the estimated total number of Leafy Seadragons is ~700,000. Confidence limits cannot be stated but the estimate is clearly based on very loose assumptions. The purpose of making such an estimate is to give perspective to the number of fish that might be removed from the wild (see Threats, below).
Mapping of habitat at sites far from major population centres and research into variability in habitat use at different sites is required to make the estimate of total population size more rigorous.
Leafy Seadragons are associated with seagrass beds and reefs supporting macroalgae (Connolly et al. 2002b). These habitats have been adversely affected by human activities and loss in quality and quantity of habitat has been documented (Baker 2003). The loss of habitat is most severe near major urban centres (e.g., Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne), where discharge of storm water and treated sewage leads to eutrophication and increased sedimentation. Losses of seagrass have been particularly severe along the metropolitan coasts and are well documented (Short and Wyllie-Echeverria 1996).
Connolly et al. (2002b) report anecdotal evidence that Leafy Seadragons are killed as incidental bycatch in the trawling industry in SA. Fishers have indicated that on occasions they catch “large numbers” of Leafy Seadragons. This information remains at the level of anecdote however, and neither the rate nor distribution of incidental catch have been substantiated. Measurement of incidental catch in SA would be beneficial, in that bycatch rates, compared with in situ densities, could be used to establish the relative threat posed by fisheries.
The legal collection of wild specimens has little likelihood of causing long-term changes in population sizes. The small numbers taken under legally issued permits could result in the reduction or loss of groups of animals at particular sites, but this is unlikely to result in measurable effects on regional populations. If demand increases substantially, illegal collection could threaten local and perhaps regional populations, although this possibility should remain unlikely given the difficulties associated with illegal international export.
This species is a major attraction for the dive industry in southern Australia, and it has been made the official fish emblem in the state of South Australia. Recreational divers often harass or disturb individuals (Kuiter 2000a). Suitable protocols for divers should be encouraged to protect local populations, but the disturbance probably does not harm the long-term prospects for regional populations.
1. Totally protected species in South Australian Waters (since 1987).
2. Protected Aquatic Biota in Victoria.
3. Totally Protected Fish Status in Western Australian Waters (since 1991).
4. Subject to Export controls since January 1st 1998, in the Commonwealth Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982.
5. Listed as marine species under s248 of The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
6. No Australian Society for Fish Biology listing.
More information (Source: Martin-Smith et al. 2003)
Australian pipehorses have been protected in Australian Commonwealth (federal) waters (greater than three nautical miles from the coast) since the beginning of 1998. As most pipehorses are caught in Commonwealth waters they are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 wherein they are ‘listed marine species’. It is an offence to take, trade, injure or kill listed marine species except under permits issued by the Minister of the Environment. Such permits for exports of syngnathids are issued subject to a management plan, which must be approved by the executive agency, Environment Australia (within the Department of Environment and Heritage). Legal protection is variable for pipehorses caught in Australian State waters (less than three nautical miles from the coast), ranging from full to no protection.
All states of Australia are currently implementing systematic series of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Different states are at different stages of this process. The most important development for Leafy Seadragons is that a new MPA is close to being declared (it was released as a draft plan earlier in 2005) in southern Gulf St Vincent in the state of SA. The proposed MPA will include areas (e.g., Encounter Bay and northeastern Kangaroo Island) in which a large proportion of public sightings of seadragons occur. The protection of these areas could substantially decrease the perceived vulnerability of the species to human activities, in particular to commercial fishing. At this stage, however, levels of protection and locations of zones of high protection within the proposed MPA have not been finalised. Furthermore, MPAs offer no immediate protection against eutrophication and sedimentation threats to habitat from land-based sources.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
P. eques has traditionally been of economic importance to the aquarium fish trade. Due to its ornamentation, it is a desirable aquarium fish although difficult to maintain (Zahl 1978). This species also intrigues divers as it is very difficult to spot, and it is one of the many exotic Australian fishes that draw tourists from all parts of the globe (Groves 1998).
The leafy seadragon or Glauert's seadragon, Phycodurus eques, is a marine fish in the family Syngnathidae, which includes seadragons, pipefish, and seahorses. It is the only member of the genus Phycodurus.
It is found along the southern and western coasts of Australia. The name is derived from the appearance, with long leaf-like protrusions coming from all over the body. These protrusions are not used for propulsion; they serve only as camouflage. The leafy seadragon propels itself by means of a pectoral fin on the ridge of its neck and a dorsal fin on its back closer to the tail end. These small fins are almost completely transparent and difficult to see as they undulate minutely to move the creature sedately through the water, completing the illusion of floating seaweed.
Much like the seahorse, the leafy seadragon's name is derived from its resemblance to another creature (in this case, the mythical dragon). While not large, they are slightly larger than most seahorses, growing to about 20–24 cm (8–10 in). They feed on plankton and small crustaceans.
The lobes of skin that grow on the leafy seadragon provide camouflage, giving it the appearance of seaweed. It is able to maintain the illusion when swimming, appearing to move through the water like a piece of floating seaweed. It can also change colour to blend in, but this ability depends on the seadragon's diet, age, location, and stress level.
Leafy seadragons usually live a solitary lifestyle. When the time comes, males court the females, they then pair up to breed. From the moment they hatch, leafy seadragons are completely independent. By the age of two, they are typically full grown and ready to breed. The leafy seadragon is related to the pipefish and belongs to the family Syngnathidae, along with the seahorse. It differs from the seahorse in appearance, form of locomotion, and its inability to coil or grasp things with its tail. A related species is the weedy seadragon, which is multicoloured and grows weed-like fins, but is smaller than the leafy seadragon. Another unique feature are the small, circular gill openings covering tufted gills, very unlike the crescent-shaped gill openings and ridged gills of most fish species. Current research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is investigating the evolutionary relationships of the Syngnathidae and the DNA variation of the three seadragon species across their ranges.
As with seahorses, the male leafy seadragon cares for the eggs. The female produces up to 250 bright pink eggs, then deposits them onto the male's tail with her ovipositor, a long tube. The eggs then attach themselves to a brood patch, which supplies them with oxygen. After 9 weeks, the eggs begin to hatch, depending on water conditions. The eggs turn a ripe purple or orange over this period, after which the male pumps his tail until the young emerge, a process which takes place over 24–48 hours. The male aids in the eggs hatching by shaking his tail, and rubbing it against seaweed and rocks. Once born, the young seadragon is completely independent, eating small zooplankton until large enough to hunt mysids. Only about 5% of the eggs survive. Leafy seadragons take about 28 months to reach sexual maturity.
The leafy seadragon uses the fins along the side of its head to allow it to steer and turn. However, its outer skin is fairly rigid, limiting mobility. Individual leafy seadragons have been observed remaining in one location for extended periods of time (up to 68 hours), but will sometimes move for lengthy periods. The tracking of one individual indicated it moved at up to 150 m (490 ft) per hour.
Leafy seadragons are subject to many threats, both natural and man-made. They are caught by collectors, and used in alternative medicine. They are vulnerable when first born, and are slow swimmers, reducing their chance of escaping from a predator. Seadragons are often washed ashore after storms, as unlike their relative the seahorse, seadragons cannot curl their tails and hold onto seagrasses to stay safe.
The species have become endangered through pollution and industrial runoff, as well as collection by fascinated divers who are entranced by their unique appearance. In response to these dangers, the species has been totally protected in South Australia since 1987, Victoria since at least 1995, and Western Australia since 1991. Additionally, the species' listing in the Australian government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 means that the welfare of the species has to be considered as a part of any developmental project.
The leafy seadragon is found only in southern Australian waters, from Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria at the eastern end of its range, westward to Jurien Bay, 220 km (140 mi) north of Perth in Western Australia. Individuals were once thought to have very restricted ranges; but further research has discovered that seadragons actually travel several hundred metres from their habitual locations, returning to the same spot using a strong sense of direction. They are mostly found over sand patches in waters up to 50 m (164 ft) deep, around kelp-covered rocks and clumps of sea grass. They are commonly sighted by scuba divers near Adelaide in South Australia, especially at Rapid Bay, Edithburgh, and Victor Harbor.
Due to being protected by law, obtaining seadragons is often an expensive and difficult process as they must be from captive bred stock, and exporters must prove their broodstock were caught before collecting restrictions went into effect, or that they had a license to collect seadragons. Seadragons have a specific level of protection under federal fisheries legislation as well as in most Australian states where they occur. Seadragons are difficult to maintain in aquaria. Success in keeping them has been largely confined to the public aquarium sector, due to funding and knowledge that would not be available to the average enthusiast. Attempts to breed the leafy seadragon in captivity have so far been unsuccessful.
A number of aquaria in the United States have leafy seadragon research programs or displays. Among these are the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, Aquarium of the Pacific at Long Beach, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, San Diego, the Minnesota Zoo, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, the Dallas World Aquarium, Texas, the New England Aquarium, Boston, the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington, the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, the California Academy of Sciences, the Tennessee Aquarium, Sea World Orlando, Florida, and the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
The leafy seadragon is the official marine emblem of the state of South Australia. It also features in the logos of the following South Australian associations — the Adelaide University Scuba Club Inc. and the Marine Life Society of South Australia Inc.
A biennial Leafy Sea Dragon Festival is held within the boundaries of the District Council of Yankalilla in South Australia. It is a festival of the environment, arts and culture of the southern Fleurieu Peninsula, with the theme of celebrating the leafy seadragon. The inaugural festival in 2005 attracted over 7,000 participants including 4000 visitors.
In 2006 an animated short film, The amazing adventures of Gavin, a Leafy Seadragon, was made on behalf of several South Australian organisations involved in conserving the marine environment, including the Coast Protection Board, the Department of Environment and Heritage and the Marine Discovery Centre. Made through a collaboration of The People's Republic of Animation, Waterline Productions and the SA Film Corporation, the film is an introductory guide to marine conservation and the marine bioregions of South Australia suitable for 8-12 year olds, and copies were distributed on DVD to all primary schools in the State. An educator's resource kit to accompany the film was released in 2008.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Phycodurus eques.|
- Australian Museum > Leafy Seadragon Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Marine Life Society of South Australia > Leafy Seadragon photos Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Reef Watch > Dragon Search > Photo Library Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Seadragon Foundation Inc > Leafy Seadragon Archived from the original webpage. Retrieved 17 February 2014.
- Underwater Australasia > Vanishing Dragon Article on making of a documentary film and DVD. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Leafy sea dragon documentary film "The Vanishing Dragon" Scuba diving in South Australia, Retrieved 9 January 2013.
- Aquarium of the Pacific > Online Learning Center > Leafy Seadragon Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Leafy seadragon information
- FishBase > Phycodurus eques (Günther, 1865), Leafy seadragon Retrieved 17 August 2011.
- Fused Jaw > Keep a Watchful Eye on the Sea Dragons of Southern Australia Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Jeffrey N. Jeffords, Dive Gallery > Leafy Sea Dragons Photo and multimedia gallery. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- MarineBio Conservation Society > Phycodurus eques, Leafy Sea Dragons Retrieved 8 August 2011.
- Phycodurus eques - IUCN database entry includes a range map and a lengthy justification of why this species is near threatened.