Birch Aquarium Hatches Baby Weedy Seadragons – Cousin of the Sea Horse

by on February 14, 2020 · 1 comment

in Environment, San Diego

Editordude: Birch Aquarium has successfully bred the rare weedy sea dragon, the lesser known cousin of the sea horse that resembles seaweed when floating.

By Caitlin Scully / Birch Aquarium Blog / February 13, 2020

For the first time ever, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego has bred and successfully hatched two rare Weedy Seadragons.

This is a first for Birch Aquarium, now one of the few aquariums in the world to hatch this unusual fish. The inch-long babies display the characteristic camouflaging appendages of the elaborate adult Weedy Seadragons in miniature, and have already had their first meals of tiny shrimp.

“We are elated to have breeding success with our Weedy Seadragons. This is a momentous event for our team and our seahorse and seadragon breeding program,” said Jennifer Nero Moffatt, the aquarium’s senior director of animal care, science and conservation. “Seadragons are charismatic, sensitive, and require detailed husbandry. We have spent over 25 years working with these animals and love that we have made the next steps to conserve this delicate species.”

Weedy Seadragons are native to southern Australia and Birch Aquarium has had a population on display, and as part of a behind-the-scenes breeding program, since 2012. The Seadragon Breeding Program was created because of the aquarium’s success in breeding other seahorse, or signathid, species. Since 1995 Birch Aquarium has bred thirteen different seahorse species, sharing more than 5,000 juvenile seahorses with other aquariums around the world.

Weedy Seadragons perform elaborate mating displays, where partners spin together snout-to-snout and move up and down in the water column. This “dance” is essential for the successful transfer of eggs from the female onto the male’s tail, where he then fertilizes and hosts the eggs. If mating is successful,, the male will hold the eggs until they hatch about 6 weeks later.

The Weedy Seadragon hatching comes on the heels of the May 2019 opening of Seadragons & Seahorses, Birch Aquarium’s newest permanent exhibition that highlights the husbandry team’s dedicated work and the state-of-the-art research laboratory behind the scenes, part of which is viewable by the public. The exhibition’s aim is to breed seadragons in captivity and help scientists answer basic questions about the species. Currently the most common answer to a seadragon questions is: “We just don’t know.”

“This is an exciting day for Birch Aquarium. Not only are these births a major accomplishment for our talented Husbandry team, but also an exciting step in our commitment to conservation,” said Executive Director Harry Helling.

Once listed as “near threatened” by the ICUN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the conservation status of Weedy Seadragons have been downgraded to “least concern” — partially because of the lack of population data. Their remote habitat along Australia’s rugged and underpopulated South Coast makes observation difficult. This isolation, combined with their expert camouflage, makes population counts challenging even for the most experienced seadragon-spotters.

Seadragons and seahorses face challenges in the wild: climate change, warming ocean, compromised habitats, destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling, and unsustainable collection practices for home aquariums and traditional medicine. Captive breeding programs, like that at Birch Aquarium, alleviates pressure on wild populations and contributes to Species Survival Plans (SSPs), as outlined by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

In 2013, a male Weedy Seadragon with fertilized eggs on his tail was one of 10 transferred from Monterey Bay Aquarium to Birch Aquarium after the closure of their temporary seadragon exhibit. The seadragons were flown on a private plane from Monterey to Birch Aquarium, where the eggs hatched. This is the first time the Birch Aquarium has had a successful egg transfer, fertilization, and hatching in-house. The aquarium’s husbandry team is diligently monitoring the sensitive baby seadragons and hope for the survival of these fragile newborns.

The baby Weedy Seadragons will remain behind-the-scenes and not viewable to the public. All Weedy Seadragons are currently off display due to a yearly habitat deep-cleaning. Their cousins, the more ornate Leafy Seadragons are currently on display in Seadragons & Seahorses.



Securing the Future of Seadragons

Birch Aquarium has bred and successfully hatched two rare Weedy Seadragons.

This is a first for Birch Aquarium, now one of the few aquariums in the world to hatch this unusual fish. After nearly 60 days of incubation, the eggs hatched in early February, 2020. We hope to continue our success with more seadragons in the future.

Seadragons are not only beautiful, they are also threatened in the wild. Pressure from the aquarium trade, combined with the challenge of studying these camouflaged creatures in their remote southern Australia habitats, has led to a decline in the wild without knowing exactly how many seadragons are left. Because of these pressures, Birch Aquarium created the Seadragon Propagation Program in 2012.

In partnership with Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists, the aquarium has been studying Leafy and Weedy Seadragons both in the wild and in our state-of-the art captive breeding facility. We hope that captive breeding of seadragons will spread the word about these vulnerable creatures and help reduce the pressure on wild seadragon populations.

Check out Leafy and Weedy Seadragons in Seadragons & Seahorses and learn about the research being done at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to better understand the distribution and genetics of these unusual creatures.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

retired botanist February 15, 2020 at 4:28 pm

This is such a great story, and accomplishment for Birch…vs.the EVIL Seaworld and their “ALL about public attendance”, rides, and corporate dollars vs actual CONSERVATION and betterment of all species, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant.
These are gorgeous, rare species, and their life cycle (that being the males harboring the young) is so incredibly unique among all animal species, its hard to relay to the lay public just how special this effort is, evolutionarily, and scientifically, etc. Sure, they aren’t fuzzy and cute, like pandas and baby seals, but their status, in the world of marine science and the study of the evolution of sexual reproduction, vs. all other forms of life cycles (and there are lots among the fish, the algae, the corals- they all have different modes of reproduction), is extraordinary and unique.
Apologies for the technical spin, but its just a lovely, lovely accomplishment and kudos to Birch for having their priorities in the right place!! :)


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