How do you know when two weedy seadragons may be mates? Well they do a little dance, of course.

During the courtship ritual, according to Aquarium Aquarist Allison Waltz-Hill, the tails of male and female seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) will curl in different directions, and one may put its snout under the chin of another. And then they do a little shimmy.

Our aquarists will be looking for these behaviors in our seadragons in the next months after we recently acquired 11 new weedy seadragons from Australia and the Georgia Aquarium. 

The New England Aquarium is trying to bulk up the seadragon population and diversify its genetic stock in an effort to breed these masters of camouflage, according to Jeremy Brodt, the Aquarium’s Galleries Supervisor and an expert on seadragons.  

“This is still a ways down the road, and there is no way to know if it will even be successful, but we’re hoping to use the holding system in Quincy as a way to test some variables and see if we can help move the ball forward,” Brodt said about the possibility of breeding seadragons.

weedy seadragons
Seadragons settle into their layover tank at the California Science Center.

So that seadragons can continue to be protected in the wild and featured in public aquariums, we are learning how best to mimic the conditions necessary to promote successful breeding at aquariums. So far, these species have proven to be extremely difficult to breed in-house. To date, no institution has successfully bred leafy seadragons, another species of seadragon. However, many institutions—including the New England Aquarium—have reported the early stages of courtship and occasional egg drops in weedy seadragons, meaning females produced eggs but were unable to transfer them to a male. Only a handful of institutions have had successful egg transfers and successfully raised baby weedy seadragons. The good news is that the number of successes has increased significantly over the last few years, and we hope that the knowledge gained from these attempts will allow us to continue to learn and be more successful in the future. 

After our staff identifies the best breeding pairings from our current collection of seadragons, they will be sent to our Quincy Animal Care Center.  

Earlier in December, Waltz-Hill and Aquarium Aquarist Audrey Santos traveled to California to assist with a delivery of six seadragons flown from Australia. The seadragons had been collected and raised by a prominent seadragon aquaculturist, one of only two people in the world permitted to take seadragons from the wild and with whom the Aquarium has worked for more than 10 years. The collection and exportation of seadragons is well regulated. That way the Australian government ensures there will be plenty of seadragons in the wild forever.  

weedy seadragon

The six weedy seadragons, which are about a year old, had a short layover at the California Science Center, which generously hosted them in one of its tanks for a couple of days. This gave the seadragons a chance to stretch their fins and rest. It also allowed the aquarists to check on the seadragons to make sure they were in good condition before finishing their trip to the East Coast.        

The Aquarium also acquired five seadragons, each about a year old, from the Georgia Aquarium in mid-November. These were the result of a successful breeding event in June 2018 at the Georgia Aquarium, which has had several successful breedings over the years.  

Typically, all the seadragons in a single delivery are related (most likely siblings), so the Aquarium tries not to acquire them all at once, said Waltz-Hill. This helps diversify the genetic stock of the entire collection.

The seadragons needed to be placed in quarantine for 30 days after arriving in Boston. They will not be placed on exhibit until the aquarists are sure they are big enough to fend for themselves. They are fed live mysid shrimp when they are young and need to become accustomed to eating frozen shrimp, which is fed to those on exhibit. 

Another task for the aquarists is telling the seadragons apart and adding them to a seadragon ID book which will help to identify the most promising breeding pairs.

How can you tell one seadragon from another?

Waltz-Hill said they look for identifying characteristics, such as a leaflet’s shape, a missing part of a leaflet, or a certain color pattern on a seadragon’s snout or back. It took only a week for Waltz-Hill to be able to identify three of the six seadragons from Australia.    

Allison rounding up dragons so they can catch their flight.

 

Allison Waltz-Hill rounds up the seadragons so they can catch their flight.

Audrey Packing Dragons to go to Boston

 

Audrey Santos packs the seadragons for their flight to Boston.

Seadragons reach reproductive age in about two years after birth. When the Aquarium’s pairings are set, the seadragons will be sent to Quincy, where the spacious tank was built specifically with breeding in mind. This gives the seadragons more vertical room for their mating dance and allows for fewer chances of the courtship being interrupted. If there is not enough room, the eggs may be dropped, and not fertilized, when they are transferred from the female to male, which will carry the eggs until they hatch.          

The newly arrived young seadragons may remain behind the scenes at the Aquarium for several months. But you can see mature weedy seadragons and a leafy seadragon right now in the Temperate Gallery. Buy tickets online to see these camouflage masters. 

Learn more about seadragons, which belong to an order of fishes called “tubesnouts” for their remarkable tube-like jaws, and read about a 2018 delivery of these special marine animals.