By Albert H. Fulcher | Editor
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego opened its doors with its largest exhibition since its opening in 1992, Seadragons & Seahorses, a home for weedy and leafy seadragons and several species of seahorses.
Center piecing this exhibit is an 18-foot wide, 9-foot tall aquarium that holds 5,375 gallons of water, with smaller aquariums featuring different species of seadragons, seahorses and pipefish. This is the largest seadragon’s habitat in the world and Birch Aquarium hopes to be the first aquarium to successfully breed leafy seadragons in captivity.
“The goal of this exhibit and the aquarium is to instill that since of wonder and passion for these animals in hopes that people will take steps to not the planet that is close to home, but the planet as a whole,” said Caitlin Scully, marketing specialist, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
“And hopefully take steps to protect it. These are amazing creatures that we hope are around a long time. And I think everything benefits when we are protecting habitats and species. All of them.”
Closely related as cousins, Scully said the difference between seahorses and seadragons is that a seadragon does not have a prehensile tail, whereas the seahorse does. Seahorses have the ability to grip on to things like seaweed, coral and things like that but a seadragon’s tail goes straight out. The other big difference between the two is that the male seahorses carry eggs inside a pouch, females lay the eggs inside. But the seadragons, the females lay the eggs on to a patch along their tails. So the males hold on and protect the eggs externally.
“Seahorses, seadragons, pipe fish and some other funky creatures that we have in the exhibit are all in the syngnathidae family, which is a type of fish,” Scully said. “They may look bizarre, but they are true fish. There are three different types of seadragons. Up until a few of years ago we thought there were only two. What we have on exhibit are the leafy seadragons, that are a little more elaborate and beautiful and we also have the weedy seadragons, just as cool, with the spots and the purple stripes. Scripps Institution of Oceanography recently discovered a few years ago the ruby seadragon, which was unknown to science. They found it through genetic research, then they went on an expedition to find this fish out in the wild. No one has the ruby seadragon in captivity.”
Scully said one of the rare things about seadragons is that they are very rare to see in captivity. There are only about 15 facilities around the world have them on display. Specifically the leafy seadragon there may only be 11 adults on display in the world and three of them live in Birch Aquarium.
“The wonderful thing about having both seadragons and seahorses here, is more than 25 years ago, Birch Aquarium started the Seahorse Breeding Program and we have been breeding 13 different species of seahorses in captivity,” Scully said. “There is a lot of pressure on seahorses. People take them out of the wild fro trinkets, aquariums, traditional medicine. They are kind of one of those things you can easily love to death.”
Scully said by breeding them in captivity, they trade the seahorses with other members in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Birch Aquarium has traded more than 5,000 seahorses to reduce the pressures on wild populations in order to help to contribute to the Species Survival Plan to ensure that these animals are around in the future.
“We are hoping to do the same with the seadragons,” Scully said. “The exhibit was designed with decades of experience along with our Husbandry Team and the team at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who studies these guides. One of the reasons it is so wide and deep is to that the seadragons have enough room to their really elaborate dances so that they can reproduce in captivity. The weedy seadragons have reproduced in captivity a handful of times over the last 30 years, but the leafy seadragons have never been bred in captivity anywhere in the world. We are really hoping to get the leafy dragons to reproduce in captivity, especially since we don’t know how many are left in the wild. The populations are changing but that is pretty much all we know.”
Seahorses are found in oceans all over the world in temperate waters, not too cold and tropical waters. They love sea grass beds, rocky bottoms, places that are good places to hide, hold on and find food. In San Diego, the giant Pacific seahorse can be up to nine inches tall and can be found in the San Diego Bay. Scully said not very many and there are stories they were in Mission Bay until it got transformed back in the day, but there might actually still be some in there.
Seadragons are only found in the waters off of South Australia. There are some areas where the leafy and the weedy population overlap but not all of it. So in the wild, they would be interacting like they are in the exhibit.
“The coral reefs in Australia are getting hit very hard by climate change and large bleaching events,” Scully said. “That’s effecting many types of species of seahorses living there. The seadragons live on the southern coast of Australia because it is more temperate waters. You would not find a seadragon in a coral reef, but their habitats are changing. Not only climate change but through thing like destructive fishing practices, dredging, the intensity of the storms due to climate change.” Scully said that seadragons are really good at hiding and are strong swimmers up to a point, but when there are big storms where the sea grass and sea beds get pulled up, you’ll find a lot of them dead on the coast. A major storm event can knock out a whole lot of them.
“Most of the seadragons can be found up along the remote coast between Sydney and Perth,” Scully said. “Researchers have found that they really love staying around piers. They think the piers help break up the surge of the water. We actually have pier pilings in our exhibit because when our team went out to study them they found so many of them under the piers.”
This exhibit allows guests to learn how to observe these animals the same way that scientists do, by noticing the unique features that distinguish individual animals and identifying courtship and mating behaviors that will make Birch’s breeding program a success.
“People love ocean animals, especially seadragons and seahorses,” said Nan Renner, the aquarium’s senior director of Learning Design and Innovation. “We invite our gusts to draw closer to these wondrous fish, to appreciate their amazing qualities and their value as part of our natural world.”
— Albert Fulcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.