The Monterey Bay Aquarium animal care team and a nurturing weedy sea dragon dad have achieved a milestone reached by only four other aquariums in North America: the birth of a brood of sea dragon babies.
More than 80 of the inch-long fish – Australian relatives of the seahorse – began hatching on July 22. The father, who carried the eggs in a brood pouch under his tail, delivered the young, with the last eggs hatching on August 2.
The young are being raised behind the scenes for now, said Associate Curator of Fish and Invertebrates Jonelle Verdugo, who heads the seahorse husbandry team at the aquarium. If they survive and thrive, visitors may get to see them as part of a special exhibition. Others will be transferred to colleague institutions with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Verdugo said the papa weedy sea dragon remained on exhibit and was free to swim about as usual while he was giving birth. Each day, the young were moved behind the scenes as they hatched, and placed in smaller aquariums to receive closer attention from caregivers.
“If we and other aquariums continue to have success in breeding weedy sea dragons, that will go a long way toward eliminating the pressure to collect sea dragons from the wild,” Verdugo said.
Leafy and weedy sea dragons are closely related to seahorses and pipefish. With all of these fishes it’s the males who carry the young.
Sea dragons have long, slender bodies with leaflike projections that help them blend in with the seaweeds where they live. Weedy sea dragons can grow to be 18 inches long, and are usually reddish in color with yellow spots.
During breeding, males and females hover side by side, mirroring each other’s movements but with tails curved away from each other. They rise up in the water column, just like seahorses, to transfer the eggs onto a brood patch on the underside of the male’s tail.
Gestation typically lasts 6-8 weeks, and the babies hatch out over the course of a few days. In the wild, as the babies hatch, the male will change his swim pattern to distribute the young over a larger area.