Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in La Jolla, Calif., is celebrating the arrival of more than 70 newborn weedy seadragons that began hatching on 2 February and continued hatching through 2 March.
Weedy Seadragons are incredibly difficult to breed in managed care, and only a handful of facilities have successfully hatched and reared this unique fish species.
“This is huge for us. We’ve been working on this for decades,” said Associate Curator, Leslee Matsushige, who leads Birch Aquarium’s seahorse and seadragon breeding programs. “This is a very challenging yet exciting process. We’ve had some previous experience raising young seadragons, so we hope to be successful raising an even greater number of babies this year.”
The babies are about one inch long and weigh less than one gram, and will grow to be 13-15 inches long. While the father will protect the fry, weedy seadragons are fairly solitary creatures, and once the eggs hatch, the babies are fully independent. They feed on their own and fend for themselves.
For several weeks, the husbandry team had been closely monitoring the father, who carried more than 70 eggs on the underside of his tail. The babies will stay behind the scenes for up to a year so aquarists can monitor and feed them a special diet, including their food of choice, tiny mysid shrimp. Eventually, there may be an opportunity to transfer some to other Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited institutions as part of breeding and education programs.
“Seadragons are relatively new to human care with their first introductions in the ’90s, said Jenn Nero Moffatt, senior director of animal care, science, and conservation. “In that short period of time, Birch Aquarium and our colleagues have been able to learn just a bit of their amazing life history, genetics, and behaviors.”
The stunning centerpiece for Seadragons and Seahorses is home to 16 adult seadragons, two of which are the result of a successful egg transfer in 2020. The display is 18 feet wide and 9 feet tall and holds over five thousand gallons of water. It was designed to provide an optimal environment for these colorful fish to mate and breed.
With their intricate camouflage and unique coloring, seadragons are excellent ambassadors to promote a greater understanding of the rich diversity in our oceans. The species is only found in temperate waters on the southern coast of Australia. In the wild, they face challenges, including food scarcity, warming oceans, and compromised habitats caused by climate change.
“This successful breeding was the result of many years of dedication to understanding this delicate species and replicating their natural environment through changes in flow rates, water volume, lighting, and water temperature, which are key to influencing their health and successful breeding. We are poised to help this species with our conservation program,” said Moffatt.
Matsushige and her team have been working with seadragons since 1996. “There is still a lot to learn and improve on,” said Matsushige. “We hope with the gained knowledge, we can get better at this process and have more frequent and consistent egg transfers and hatchings.”
Edited by Sarah Gilsoul, a writer and communications program assistant at AZA
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