Leafy seadragon secrets unravelled by citizen science

How citizen science unravelled the secrets of dragons

The phrase “Here be dragons” was once used on maps to indicate a potentially dangerous or unexplored area. Perhaps Australia’s waters once held this title, although it is likely the mapmakers did not know dragons truly roam our country’s waters. And like any other dragon you’ve seen, they truly are mesmerising.

That’s the only way to describe this dragon – which is actually a small, marine fish with elaborate leaf-like appendages that has captured the attention and admiration of divers, scientists, and nature enthusiasts worldwide.

Meet the leafy seadragon (Phycodurus eques), a member of the Syngnathidae family, which also includes pipefish and the more famous seahorses. Leafy seadragons are found mainly in South Australia and Western Australia.

They are relatively well-known now, even nicknamed “leafies”, but that wasn’t always the case.

In 1996, various South Australian community organizations and researchers banded together to unravel the mysteries surrounding their beloved marine residents. Known as “Dragon Search SA” the aim was to gain a deeper insight into the lives of these little animals, encouraging anyone at the beach or swimming in the sea to contribute to scientific research by sharing information about seadragon sightings through survey forms.

Red leafy seadragon underwater
A leafy seadragon seen off the coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia. Credit: © Julie Wrighton via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC)

Thanks to the data collected, Dragon Search SA substantially expanded our knowledge regarding the behaviours, movements, and interactions of seadragons within their habitats. Simultaneously, during the project’s initial decade, targeted research was conducted in South Australia by Rod Connolly, who employed radio tracking to study individual seadragons.

Connolly’s groundbreaking work took him to West Island: 800 metres off the shore at Victor Harbour,  a low lying rocky outcrop rarely visited by humans, except those who launch from the nearby beach to show off their swimming or canoeing daring.

The research confirmed what divers had long suspected – leafies tend to remain within a limited home range. Motivated by this knowledge and the necessity for more data to inform conservation planning, divers and dive tour operators embarked on individual projects to track seadragons, identifying each fish based on its unique markings.

They are now well-known for their slender bodies sporting some remarkable camouflage that resembles drifting seaweed or kelp; they can vary in colour and may include shades of brown, yellow, and green, allowing them to blend seamlessly into seagrass beds and rocky reefs.

Leafies are relatively well-known now, but that wasn’t always the case.

Although they lack teeth, their long, tubular snouts suck up a variety of prey such as small crustaceans, tiny fish, and other small invertebrates. Listed as Near Threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, they face various threats: habitat degradation, pollution, coastal development, incidental capture in fishing nets, and pressure from the illegal wildlife trade. As a result, conservation efforts, including research, monitoring, and habitat protection, are crucial for their long-term survival.

Their localised distribution, coupled with their unique appearance and vulnerability, makes them a species of great interest to researchers, divers, and nature enthusiasts.

In 2013, a more structured community pilot project focusing on seadragons was established in South Australia. Over a span of seven years, seadragons from this study were periodically identified, allowing for the documentation of changes in their appearances over time and the observation of their breeding behaviour.

Dragon Search South Australia has played a pivotal role in advancing current seadragon research initiatives and setting the stage for ongoing studies in the field, collectively involving dozens of NGOs, government agencies, researchers and dive shops, and hundreds of divers. There is recent data from contributors who have uploaded to the Dragon Search SA project on iNaturalist.

“We have developed a robust set of head and body identification markers to identify individual leafy seadragons from images, and are now keywording thousands of images to automate the database searches,” says Dragon Search project-lead Janine Baker, a South Australian marine researcher who has worked extensively analysing and mapping community sighting data of seadragons.

Baker and her colleagues have significantly enhanced the global understanding of leafy seadragons through their remarkable efforts in identifying individuals using facial and body markers.

“We have 13 years of data (2011-2023) in the second phase of analysis [and] results since 2013 have revealed  longevity (live for more than a decade), breeding (often twice per season, and timed to the day, gestation can be less than 6 weeks), long term pairings (e.g. male ‘brood buddies’ that stay together for years during the egg-brooding season), alpha males that stay in an area and mate with more than one visiting female partner over time,  damage to individual seadragons over time (e.g. loss of appendages, which do not regrow), regrowth of ‘leaves,’ seadragon movements between different habitats, and much more.”

Incredibly, the team has even successfully tracked some individuals for over eight years!

Citizen science projects involving the public in scientific research and data collection, often through the use of technology and community participation, are not new to Australia.

Australia has a rich history of engaging the public in citizen science projects across various fields and environments. For example, Redmap (Range Extension Database & Mapping) invites divers, fishers, and beachgoers to report sightings of marine species that are uncommon or appear to have extended their range. This project, managed by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, helps monitor and track the impacts of climate change and other environmental factors on Australia’s marine biodiversity.

The team has even successfully tracked some individuals for over eight years.

And The Reef Life Survey, conducted by the University of Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division, engages divers in documenting marine life diversity and abundance on coral reefs and other coastal habitats. The data collected contributes to understanding changes in reef ecosystems and informing conservation efforts. And we mustn’t forget the Spider Crab Watch currently going on!

Similar to other citizen science projects, the Dragon Search South Australia project depends on grants to support its operations; it relies on regular small community grants, which are used to compensate divers for uploading their images to iNaturalist and cover the costs of analysis and reporting. And the project owes its success to the dedication of numerous volunteer divers and the project manager, who have collectively invested thousands of hours of their time.

Through their efforts, the project has yielded significant outcomes, fostering ongoing community engagement (celebrating top contributing photographers and submitters) and appreciation for seadragons (they’re now South Australia’s marine emblem) and their habitats. Additionally, it has enhanced the community and industry’s understanding of responsible diving and photography practices when encountering seadragons, ultimately contributing to the protection of seadragon habitats and populations in South Australia, safeguarding them from potential threats.

Orange leafy seadragon underwater
A leafy seadragon seen off the coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia. Credit: © tammygibbs via iNaturalist (CC BY N-C)

“Thanks again to all divers – locals and visitors alike – who use their time, effort, skill, equipment and other resources to find and photograph seadragons in SA. Your images are highly valued by Dragon Search South Australia, and provide very important insight into the complex life history of these unique little fishes,” says Baker.

So far in 2023, the project has received contributions from 60 divers who have diligently posted their findings. This valuable data has enabled investigators to thoroughly analyse approximately 6,000 leafy seadragon records from South Australia, using a comprehensive set of 40 visual markers to gain deeper insights into the seadragon population and its characteristics.

So, fancy letting your inner (Australian) Viking out to look for some dragons? Put on your mask, snorkel, and fins and dive into the water – and let’s hope there are dragons!

Clarification Aug 31: Phycodurus eques is not found in Victoria. We have changed the detail to correct the error.

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