Welcoming New Weedy Seadragons to the Aquarium

Exciting news! Our aquarists are bringing new weedy seadragons to Central Wharf! But these wee fish have quite a journey ahead before they go on exhibit. 

First, a bit about the species 

One of the most popular exhibits in the Temperate Waters Gallery—the entire Aquarium, in fact—is the seadragon display. Two species of seadragon dazzle visitors with their intricate camouflage and mesmerizing ability to glide through the water: weedy seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) and leafy seadragons (Phycodurus eques). As they are slow swimmers, they rely on delicate appendages that offer some camouflage as they swim among seagrasses. 

Like seahorses, seadragons have reversed sex roles; the males carry the eggs. Unlike a seahorse, which carry eggs in a pouch, a male seadragon carries eggs on a patch on the underside of his tail. This patch gets thick and spongy before receiving up to 300 eggs laid by the female. The male carries these eggs for approximately eight weeks before the young hatch. After that, the babies are on their own as there is no parental care for young seadragons.

weedy seadragon swimming through its exhibit
Weedy seadragon

Both weedy and leafy seadragon species are listed as species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While it’s hard to accurately count these elusive species in their wild habitat, regulators believe the populations are relatively healthy. That said, they face threats, including habitat degradation and loss due to pollution in some areas. These relatives of seahorses and pipefish are endemic to the temperate, or mild, waters along the southern coast of Australia. Endemic means they are only found in this one area of the world, so it takes a lot of careful coordination to be able to bring these fish to Boston for visitors to see.

weedy and leafy seadragons in exhibit
Weedy and leafy seadragons in our exhibit
Seadragons in aquariums

With their otherworldly camouflage and colors, seadragons are wonderful ambassadors to promote a greater understanding of the rich diversity in our oceans. Aquariums like ours share them with visitors in the hope of creating a sense of wonder that will inspire people to join their community and help protect our blue planet. Seadragons have been on display in public aquariums since the mid- to late 1990s and have only become a common display in the early 2000s. As a result, there is still a lot we are learning about these fish.

So that we can continue to protect them in the wild and feature seadragons 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 captivity. To date, no institution has successfully bred leafy seadragons. 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’s tail. 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 three to five years, and we hope that the knowledge gained from these incidents will allow us to continue to learn and be more successful in the future! 

weedy seadragon
Weedy seadragon
Traveling seadragons

So in order to grow our breeding population of weedy seadragons, we are bringing a few more to Boston! This is no small feat. It is important that the collection and exportation of seadragons is well regulated. That way the Australian government ensures that there will be plenty of seadragons in the wild forever. After all, they are the state marine emblems of the Australian states of Victoria (weedy seadragons) and South Australia (leafy seadragons). 

The seadragons that are coming to Boston were caught in the wild, but raised in captivity. The licensed collector is allowed to take a small number of gravid (egg-carrying) males back to his facility, where the babies hatch. The babies spent a few months growing and have now been sold to public aquariums around the world. Recently, a small batch of weedy seadragons left Australia on their long journey bound for Central Wharf. But first, they are making a pit stop at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Our aquarists Allison Waltz-Hill and Jeremy Brodt met the wee weedies during their layover in LA. Then it’s on to Boston. Of course, these young weedy seadragons are still pretty small and will have to spend several months growing up behind the scenes before visitors can see them.

More on the layover and the tiny seadragons’ long journey to join the others on exhibit still to come! Stay tuned for pictures and video and more.

How did Jeremy get to be such an expert on seadragons? He has been caring for them here at the Aquarium for years. He even went all the way to Australia to study them in the wild and meet with experts at other aquariums to see how they’re caring for these remarkable species. His blog from 2009 is still active and chock full of pictures and video. Take a read down memory lane!
weedy seadragon in wild
Weedy seadragon photographed in the wild during 2009 expedition to Australia