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Sea Dragon eggs at Birch Aquarium!

Take aim at the seahorse’s cooler cousin

Weedy sea dragon with eggs on tail.
Weedy sea dragon with eggs on tail.

“People are very intrigued by seahorses,” says Leslee Matsushige, associate curator at Birch Aquarium. And intriguing fish — signs of whimsy in the relentlessly efficient natural world — are good PR for an institution hoping to make people care about the state of the ocean. So it was good news when, “many years ago, someone collected a Pacific seahorse in San Diego Bay and brought it to the aquarium. We tried our best to keep it alive and have it for visitors to see,” but that species of seahorse doesn’t live much longer than five years. “We ended up getting another seahorse from the wild that was pregnant, and that started our whole program.” — maybe call it Operation Population. “We had a very generous donor, Dorothy Munro, who gave us money to build a propagation room. Now we raise 13 different seahorses,” and share the surplus with aquariums around the world.

Place

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

2300 Expedition Way, San Diego

Eventually, Matsushige and the Birch team got good enough at their job to take aim at the seahorse’s cooler cousin, the sea dragon. That was in 1996 — a long time to set the mood. “Once,” recalls Matsushige, “I saw a female drop her eggs, and I saw a male that was kind of courting her. So I tried to stick the eggs to his tail. It didn’t work. They have to be in sync. I went to Australia, dove with the sea dragons, looked at their habitat, and tried to incorporate all that” into the exhibit. “They love being underneath piers with pilings, so we incorporated pilings. They hang around sea grass, so we put sea grass on one side of the exhibit.” And they need room to boogie: “We built the tank deep — it’s 9 feet deep and 18 feet wide. We felt they needed that space in order to do their dance and subsequent egg transfer.”

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Leslee Matsushige, dragon wrangler.

Of course, it’s not always enough to merely set the scene. “Nutrition is probably the most important thing. We feed them tiny little shrimp every day, and we enrich those shrimp with probiotics and vitamins and fatty acids. And we give the sea dragons environmental cues for seasonal changes. We give them temperature changes, changes in length of daylight. We have some species in the ocean that get cues off the phases of the moon — it could be because of the tides. So we try to simulate those phases, too,” with the help of a skylight above the exhibit.

Sometime in the night between January 8 and 9, a pair of weedy sea dragons finally got in sync. “They transferred the eggs right around the full moon. There are about 150 eggs on the male, which is a huge deal, because the last time we had a transfer, which was behind the scenes, it was just five eggs. Two of those ended up hatching, and we raised the babies and they are currently in our exhibit. But this is just huge. You don’t typically see this in aquariums.”

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Weedy sea dragon with eggs on tail.
Weedy sea dragon with eggs on tail.

“People are very intrigued by seahorses,” says Leslee Matsushige, associate curator at Birch Aquarium. And intriguing fish — signs of whimsy in the relentlessly efficient natural world — are good PR for an institution hoping to make people care about the state of the ocean. So it was good news when, “many years ago, someone collected a Pacific seahorse in San Diego Bay and brought it to the aquarium. We tried our best to keep it alive and have it for visitors to see,” but that species of seahorse doesn’t live much longer than five years. “We ended up getting another seahorse from the wild that was pregnant, and that started our whole program.” — maybe call it Operation Population. “We had a very generous donor, Dorothy Munro, who gave us money to build a propagation room. Now we raise 13 different seahorses,” and share the surplus with aquariums around the world.

Place

Birch Aquarium at Scripps

2300 Expedition Way, San Diego

Eventually, Matsushige and the Birch team got good enough at their job to take aim at the seahorse’s cooler cousin, the sea dragon. That was in 1996 — a long time to set the mood. “Once,” recalls Matsushige, “I saw a female drop her eggs, and I saw a male that was kind of courting her. So I tried to stick the eggs to his tail. It didn’t work. They have to be in sync. I went to Australia, dove with the sea dragons, looked at their habitat, and tried to incorporate all that” into the exhibit. “They love being underneath piers with pilings, so we incorporated pilings. They hang around sea grass, so we put sea grass on one side of the exhibit.” And they need room to boogie: “We built the tank deep — it’s 9 feet deep and 18 feet wide. We felt they needed that space in order to do their dance and subsequent egg transfer.”

Sponsored
Sponsored
Leslee Matsushige, dragon wrangler.

Of course, it’s not always enough to merely set the scene. “Nutrition is probably the most important thing. We feed them tiny little shrimp every day, and we enrich those shrimp with probiotics and vitamins and fatty acids. And we give the sea dragons environmental cues for seasonal changes. We give them temperature changes, changes in length of daylight. We have some species in the ocean that get cues off the phases of the moon — it could be because of the tides. So we try to simulate those phases, too,” with the help of a skylight above the exhibit.

Sometime in the night between January 8 and 9, a pair of weedy sea dragons finally got in sync. “They transferred the eggs right around the full moon. There are about 150 eggs on the male, which is a huge deal, because the last time we had a transfer, which was behind the scenes, it was just five eggs. Two of those ended up hatching, and we raised the babies and they are currently in our exhibit. But this is just huge. You don’t typically see this in aquariums.”

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