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Though far from breathing fire or granting wishes, sea dragons are nonetheless fantastic ocean creatures. Living in a small belt along the coastal waters of Australia, the two main species of sea dragon are known as the leafy and weedy varieties. Delicate and retiring, these fascinating creatures belong to the same family as the better-known seahorses, but have a unique, unmistakable appearance.
The weedy sea dragon, Phyllopterex taeniolatus, is the less spectacular of the two species. Built for camouflage among the reeds and grasses of the coastal reefs, the weedy dragon has unique fronds that stick out from its body, giving it an excellent chance at going unnoticed amongst the vegetation. Much bigger than its cousin, the leafy dragon, weedy adults can reach up to 18 inches in length (45.7 cm).
Weedy sea dragons are notable for their mating rituals, which can last several hours. In an elaborate dance, a pair of dragons will mimic one another's movements, gracefully swimming about the watery depths. The mating ritual ends with the transfer of unfertilized eggs from the female to the male, who fertilizes them and carries the eggs in his tail until they are ready to hatch. Along with some seahorse species, sea dragon species are some of the few animals that engage in largely paternal hatching behaviors.
Leafy sea dragons are certainly the more dramatic variety of these interesting animals. Sporting long, branch-like appendages along the top and bottom of its body, the leafy dragon is quite easy to mistake for seaweed. Usually greenish with yellow, red, and orange markings, the leafy dragon is found along the south Australian coast, staying within a smaller range than its' weedy cousins. Adults reach about 13 inches (33 cm), and have a long, pipe-like nose.
Both species of sea dragon are carnivorous, feasting upon tiny shrimp and crustaceans. Mobility is dependent on small fins along the body that can be use for directed movement, although many simply drift along with prevailing water movement to conserve energy. Incredibly difficult to maintain in captivity, only a few major aquariums have successfully managed to create sea dragon breeding programs. One of the major threats to the sea dragon is harvesting for the private aquarium trade, which will almost certainly lead to a quick death for these delicate fish. In their natural habitat, harvesting sea dragons for sale is widely outlawed, so any sea dragons found through aquarium dealers have likely been obtained illegally.
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