In Discovery Bay, there are ocean animals as rare as four-leaf clovers – which means the Minnesota Zoo is very lucky to have them! Meet the leafy seadragons and weedy seadragons.

The Minnesota Zoo is one of only a handful of zoos and aquariums in the whole world with the expertise and facilities to support seadragons. For 20 years, we’ve provided them with meticulous care and shared with Zoo guests how we can all protect the ocean environment.

“Seadragons are some of the most unique aquatic animals out there,” says Christoph Noetzli, the Minnesota Zoo’s Curator of Aquariums. “Giving people the opportunity to see these incredible animals is one of the most important and satisfying parts of working at a zoo or aquarium.”

Hidden Figures

You’ll have to peer closely into their tank. That’s not just seaweed waving in the water! Seadragons are experts at a type of camouflage called mimicry. They use their colors and grass-like appendages to imitate and blend in with their backdrop. Their slow but graceful swimming adds to the illusion.

Like seahorses, their close relatives, seadragons are in fact fish! They both have long horse-like heads, and their bodies are covered in bony plates instead of scales.

The Minnesota Zoo cares for nine seadragons of two different species. We’re one of only seven facilities with weedy seadragons and one of only two institutions in the United States that currently houses a leafy seadragon.

Leafies, as they are affectionally called, are distinguished by their lusher “foliage.” Both species are kaleidoscopes of color. Their bodies can be a mix of blonde and gold, red and orange, purple and black, spots and stripes. Fins are almost translucent.

This close-up photo shows the distinctive horse-like head and long snout of a leafy seadragon at the Minnesota Zoo.

Meticulous Care

Dan Peterson, Assistant Curator of Aquariums, is the go-to guy for seadragon care. He just celebrated his thirtieth anniversary at the Minnesota Zoo. Better known as “Diver Dan” for his SCUBA diving experience, he has accumulated more than 4,700 dive hours in his career—the equivalent of 197 days spent underwater!

“Dan has been working with seahorses and seadragons for decades,” Noetzli says. “Dragons are some of the most sensitive fish to take care of, so it takes a certain expertise to maintain them.”

Because seadragons are delicate, Peterson and his colleagues keep a meticulously clean and constant environment for them. They siphon the bottom of the tank multiple times a week to remove waste and run weekly water chemistries to check for proper levels of salinity, pH, and nitrogen.

In the wild, seadragons live in cold-water kelp forests on the coast of southern Australia. Here at the Zoo, we try to match those conditions. The water temperature in their tank is maintained at 58 F and a probe will set off an alarm if the temperature deviates by 2 degrees.

Aquarists share their tips and tricks for seadragon care in online forums so that more institutions can have success in housing and breeding these rare creatures.

“There is even an annual seahorse and seadragon conference where aquarists gather to discuss all things horses and dragons,” Noetzli says. “By sharing our knowledge, large advancements have been made in seadragon care.”

How to Train a Seadragon

They may resemble plants, but seadragons are carnivores. In fact, Peterson says these picky eaters really only want one food: mysid shrimp.

“Because they have tiny mouths, they need these tiny crustaceans to eat,” he says.

Feeding live saltwater shrimp to seadragons would require shipping it across country or culturing them here at the Zoo – both expensive propositions.

Instead, over time, Peterson patiently trained the seadragons to accept frozen shrimp. He mixed live and defrosted shrimp together. The movement of the live shrimp stimulated the seadragons to eat. The defrosted shrimp resembled stunned prey, and the seadragons began to eat them too.

“Over time, they’ve acclimated extremely well, and we now bring in only frozen shrimp for them,” he says.

Fatherly Fish

Seadragon dads are small fish with big jobs. Along with seahorses, seadragons are the only species in which the male gets pregnant and gives birth.

Males’ tails are noticeably thicker than females.

“We know the males are pregnant when we see reddish-orangish eggs on the tail,” Peterson says.

The male incubates hundreds of eggs for 6 to 8 weeks and then releases them to hatch.

The weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), also called the common seadragon, is a fish closely related to the seahorses.

Weedies require deep tanks and a low-stress environment to breed successfully. Peterson describes the seadragons’ courtship as a beautiful dance.

“They shimmy and curl their tails together,” he says. “The male and female will mirror each other.”

While several aquariums have hatched weedies, the leafies have proven to be a bigger challenge.

“So far, we’ve been unable to breed a leafy seadragon in human care,” Peterson says. “We haven’t quite figured out what they need.”

Survival of the Species

Seahorses are found throughout the world in tropical and saltwater environments. But seadragons are creatures only of southern and western Australia. They are so distinctive to this region that they were made the official marine emblems of the states of Victoria and South Australia. But just because they’re well-loved — and well-camouflaged — doesn’t mean they’re safe.

Endemic species, like seadragons, are geographically limited to a single place on the planet, which makes them highly vulnerable to habitat loss and degradation. Threats in the wild include coastal habitat loss and degradation due to human activities and polluted stormwater runoff from major cities like Perth and Melbourne.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) monitors the health of species and ecosystems and classifies species into categories like extinct, endangered and threated. They say the wild population of seadragons is decreasing but not considered threatened. But due to their camouflage, they are a difficult animal to track. In fact, a third species of seadragon – the ruby seadragon – was only conclusively identified in 2015 after two individual animals found in 1919 and 2007 were linked.

Our leafy arrived in late summer 2019 after a long journey from Australia to Los Angeles, through customs, and another four-hour flight to Minnesota. It was the one of the last – if not the last – leafy seadragon to leave Australia before the COVID-19 pandemic. The species is prized and protected by the Australian government, and a single aquarist holds the permit to place them in zoos and aquariums. In a U.S. census conducted last year, only the Minnesota Zoo and Dallas World Aquarium  housed leafy seadragons.

“Leafy seadragons are priceless,” Peterson says. “There are so few left. They are really something to see.”

The Minnesota Zoo is one of only two institutions in the United States that currently houses a leafy seadragon (Phycodurus eques). This animal came to the Zoo from its native Australia in 2019.

Visit the Minnesota Zoo to meet these magical creatures! Find the botanical beauty of seadragons in Discovery Bay.