Keep a Watchful Eye on the Sea Dragons of Southern Australia
Living amongst the many and varied creatures in the temperate coastal waters of southern Australia; are in essence, the a relatively little known, but immensely fascinating sea dragons. These marine fish of the Syngnathidae family, are closely related to sea horses and pipefish, and as such, need to eat constantly, owing to the fact that none of them possess a stomach; thus, they are unable to sustain energy for any length of time.
There are two different types of sea dragon; both ornately camouflaged to blend in with the seaweed and kelp formations of their chosen habitat. The leafy sea dragon (phycodures eques), with its striking leaf shape (hence the name), and its olive shaded appendages; is brown to yellow in colour and can grow up to 35cm in length. They have several long sharp spines on their body, thought to be used as a defensive mechanism against other fish during an attack. They have been spotted from north of Perth on the west coast, to as far round as Kangaroo Island, south west of Adelaide in the south. The leafy Sea Dragon is the official marine emblem for the state of South Australia.
It’s slightly longer (up to 46cm); but less ostentatious looking cousin, the weedy sea dragon (phyllopteryx taeniolatus) – sometimes known as the common dragon – is usually reddish in colour with yellow spots; the male of the species is generally darker than the female. Sightings range from a similar place in the west to those of the leafy, but stretching further around to New South Wales in the east. Their peculiar look consists of a long thin snout, no teeth, slender trunks, with small transparent dorsal and pectoral fins which propel them through the water. These little creatures have an enchanting courtship ritual, often referred to as a ‘mirror dance’, in which they mimic each others movements during mating.
Unfortunately, not quite so enthralling is the dwindling numbers of both species. They currently have an environmental listing which shows them as near threatened creatures; granted to them by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This is the body founded in 1948, as the worlds first global environmental establishment. They have over 1000 member organisations in over 140 countries. It supports scientific research and brings together governments, United Nations agencies and local communities; to develop and implement policy, new laws and best practice for the challenges it meets. The organisation has thousands of voluntary scientists and experts around the world. Its vision is a just world that values and conserves nature; with a mission to influence societies across the globe to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature, and to ensure that any use of natural resources is ecologically sustainable.
The sea dragon’s placement in the near threatened category is a distinct recognition that their situation could be heading for major problems. So, whilst at present, its only a threat; the sea dragons are close, and very likely to qualify for, one of the more threatened placements in the very near future. Initially that could be vulnerable, followed then by endangered, before leading onto critically endangered; therefore, urgent action and assistance is required immediately, to halt further damage.
Much of the threat to their populous, can be attributed to human activities, i.e. man-made issues; with pollution and loss of the sea grass meadow in their habitat, at the forefront. Excessive fertiliser run off is another contributor; plus in large urban areas, such as the major cities of Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne, sewage increases sedimentation. Many of the dragons can be found in clumps of sand in waters up to 50 meters deep, but even there they are targets for the recreational divers who take them – possibly with good intentions – as a real life keep-sake of their experience. Regrettably, they are then unable to replicate the necessary environment and the dragons perish.
There have also been unsubstantiated reports of heavy losses due to the trawling industry in South Australia; also there are those who see the sea dragon as a source for alternative medicines; together with the collectors who treat them as hobby. However, the country’s very strict export laws do help. It is illegal to transport leafy sea dragons out of Australia, as they cannot handle water pressure changes and could rupture. In actual fact, handling of the species is rigorously discouraged all together, due to their very fragile nature, and as a consequence, likelihood of causing injury.
The government are aware of the situation, indeed since the early 1990’s, they placed complete protection on both species of sea dragons. They are also subject to export controls since the start of 1998 in line with the Commonwealth Wildlife Protection Act of 1982. There are, in addition, Marine Protected Areas (MPA), although each state is currently at differing levels.
There is also, unfortunately, the constant threat from natural phenomenons; from which there is little that can be done. Sea Dragons, are very weak swimmers and unlike sea horses, cannot use their tails for gripping. Therefore, in storm waters, they are often washed ashore, and become stranded on a beach. Also, for every 250 miniature sea dragons released from a males brood patch, on average only 5% will survive. They become instantly independent and are left in isolation to be preyed upon by crabs and anemones amongst others. It is the young however, that have become a target for unscrupulous collectors, who actually take the adult males, who are responsible for the incubation of the females eggs over a 4 to 6 week period. These opportunists hatch out the infant dragons and sell them on for a tidy profit.
Ongoing monitoring programs work establish more accurate population trends, and increased research into specific areas of sea dragon activity. This needs to continue at pace to allow precise figures and locations to be charted. The MPA of all the states will hopefully be brought into a situation where they offer the same protection; consequently decreasing threats from human activities, particularly commercial fishing. There should also be encouragement for protocol to be introduced for divers, to close that particular avenue of threat.
Indeed, divers can assist by logging sightings and maybe just as importantly reporting locations where perhaps they had witnessed dragon activity in the past, but on subsequent visits there presence no longer existed. In a similar way, the general public can report any dragons they may come across on beaches, which may help pinpoint habitats.
These odd looking, but harmless little creatures have a sophisticated navigational system, enabling them to travel hundreds of meters away from ‘home’, yet return to the very same spot. They deserve assistance to allow that practice to be maintained unharmed. The sea dragons also have eyes that can move independently of each other, so who could blame them if theoretically they had one eye on what the world is doing to protect them!