Leafy seadragons: Australia’s favourite fish

In a recent poll organised by the Australian Society for Fish Biology and Lateral Magazine, the Leafy Seadragon (Phycodurus eques) was voted as Australia’s favourite fish. This exquisite critter definitely deserves its place at the top, to celebrate it amazingness I wrote a blog about it. This blog appeared originally as an article in Lateral Magazine, you can find the original version here.


According to the popular stereotype, marine biologists spend their careers diving on colourful coral reefs, cuddling dolphins, and wrestling sharks. Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more mundane; we are more likely to spend our days diving into data analyses, cuddling too many cups of coffee, and wrestling grant proposals.

But sometimes we get lucky enough to work with animals that exceed the wildest stereotypes. Studying marine life is always exciting, but some animals are so unique they just stop you in your tracks; they make you thank your lucky stars for not listening to your mother when she said ‘marine biologist’ was not a real job.

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Two leafy seadragons. Photo credit: David Harasti

For me, the ultimate awe-inspiring fish is the leafy seadragon (Phycodurus eques). “Leafies” only occur in temperate waters off southern Australia, and they are, to say the very least, unique animals — the kind that makes you wonder whether evolution had a stroke of brilliance or just a stroke. Seadragons belong to the Syngnathidae family, which also includes seahorses and pipefishes. Even in a family that is known for their oddly-shaped members, leafies stand out big-time.

These beautiful fish have the head of a seahorse and the body of a seaweed, with flamboyant leaf-like protrusions that wouldn’t look out of place at the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Leafy seadragons defy the idea of what a fish should look like.

Maybe that is why they are so popular with fish enthusiasts all over the world. Scuba divers fly halfway across the globe to dive in the cold waters off southern Australia, hoping to catch a glimpse of them. In the few public aquaria that display them, including Melbourne Aquarium, leafies are one of the absolute crowd-pleasers. For fish-lovers, this Australian endemic fish is at least as iconic as kangaroos or koalas.

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Leafy seadragon. Photo credit: Tony Brown

Despite their popularity, we know surprisingly little about leafy seadragons. Adult leafies are one of the largest members of the Syngnathidae family, with adults measuring up to 35cm. Like seahorses, male seadragons carry their mating partner’s fertilised eggs; unlike seahorses, they do not have a pouch. Instead, females lay their eggs on the underside of the male’s tail, where they remain until hatching.

Leafy seadragons depend on kelp and seagrass beds as their habitat, where they blend in supremely well to avoid predators. Unfortunately, these habitats are in decline all over the world, including in Australia, caused by coastal development and potentially climate change. As a result, seadragon population numbers are decreasing, although the species is currently not considered to be endangered.

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Admiring a Weedy seadragon, a close cousin of the Leafy seadragon. Photo credit: Greg Lecoeur

One would assume that the decreasing population numbers of a unique Australian emblem would inspire multitudes of researchers to study it. Strangely, this is not the case. A search of the scientific literature suggests that nobody has studied them in the wild for almost a decade. This lack of research on evolutionary distinct marine critters is unfortunately not unique to seadragons. It extends to many other species that do not fit in the ‘food’, ‘danger’, or ‘Pixar-famous’ categories in which landlubbers like to divide marine life. If so little attention is paid to the struggles of Australia’s most recognisable and charismatic fish, then what hope do other species have?

Time will tell what the future holds for the leafy seadragon. I, for one, am doing what I can to ensure generations after ours will continue to have their minds boggled by this incredible animal. If you care about seadragons, one way to help is to join citizen science projects such as iNaturalist or Seagrass Spotter. These projects collect observations from divers and snorkellers, directly helping scientists better understand and protect these animals and their habitats.


A short note about this blog: Two weeks after the poll I was awarded a research grant by the Sea World Research and Rescue Foundation to study the seadragons using eDNA. Hopefully the results that will come out of this research will help to better understand and protect these beautiful fishes.

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Time for something new

I never liked going to school. Not as a kid, not as a teenager, and not even as a young adult. Maybe I just disliked being bored so often? Even in the classes I was interested in, I felt that just absorbing all the knowledge in world was not exciting. My impression was that science already knew everything and that new discoveries were pretty much impossible. That science had somehow “stopped”.

Well, let me tell you one thing, it most definitely has not! I was not learning “all the knowledge in the world”, in fact LOTS of new things are discovered all the time! Since this blog is about ocean critters, let’s look at some of the critters that have recently been discovered. In the last year alone, new seahorses, frogfishes, gobies, jawfishes, and many other species have been discovered. So if you thought you’d seen it all, think again 😉

Seahorses and relatives

A new species of pygmy seahorse was described 3 months ago by Graham Short and colleagues. This ridiculously cute little seahorse lives in Japan and is called Hippocampus japapigu (=Japanese pig seahorse). These little wonders are less than 2cm in size and have a wonderful honeycomb colour pattern. Unlike some other pygmy seahorses, the Japanese pygmy seahorse does not live in seafans, instead it can be found in hydroids, algae, or soft corals.

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The newly describe Japanese pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus japapigu). Photo: Richard Smith

Even more recently, less than a month ago, another new pygmy seahorse species was discovered in South Africa. The first ever pygmy seahorse in South Africa! Dive operators in the Sodwana Bay region had found this small seahorse and asked pygmy seahorse expert Richard Smith about it. Together with IUCN seahorse expert Louw Claassens he went for an expedition and has confirmed the new species. It has not got a name just yet, but should be officially described sometime next year.

During the same expedition, Richard and Louw also found a new species of pygmy pipehorse! You might have never heard of pipehorses, but they are just fantastic. Sort of like a seahorse that disguised itself as a pipefish, or maybe the other way around?

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A newly discovered, still unnamed pygmy pipehorse from South Africa. Photo: Richard Smith

Frogfish

Big news from Australia as well! A new frogfish species was described in the journal Copeia this week. The Narungga frogfish (Histiophryne narungga) is found in South and West Australia, and was named after the indigenous people living in the area. The beautiful new frogfish lives mostly in shallow water, where it does what frogfishes does best: mimicking sponges or other benthic organisms, hoping to catch unsuspecting prey that swims by. This small (less than 10cm), new frogfish is very much on my “critters to see before I leave Australia”-wish list!

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Narungga frogfish (Histiophryne narungga): A new Australian frogfish species. Photo: Rudie Kuiter

The researchers describing the Narungga frogfish, Rachel Arnold and Theodore Pietsch, are pretty much the rock stars of the frogfish world. Together they have described 9 new frogfish species in the last 10 years, the most famous of which is the Psychedelic frogfish!

Gobies

I’ll be honest, for someone who studies cryptobenthic fishes, I don’t know nearly enough about gobies. Luckily, other researcher do know a lot about gobies and they seem to be good at finding new species as well. This year a new species was discovered from the west Pacific Ocean. The polkadot dwarf goby (Eviota maculosa) lives in Indonesia, Australia and Pohnpei. Its small size, less than 2cm, probably explains why it has taken researchers so long to realise this was an undescribed species.

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Eviota maculosa, a new goby species from the west Pacific. Photo Mark Erdmann

Jawfishes

If you are not a keen muck diver or underwater photographer, you can be forgiven for not knowing about jawfishes. These cryptic fish live in holes in the sand and don’t venture out very often. Most notably, they are “mouthbrooders“, fish that hatch their eggs in their mouths. This week, two new jawfishes were described from Brazil. Thiony’s jawfish (Opistognathus thionyi) and the Brazilian dusky jawfish (Opistognathus vicinus) both seem to be endemic to Brazil, meaning they do not occur anywhere else. Thiony’s jawfish seems to live deeper than the Brazilian dusky jawfish, but otherwise, not much else is known about these new species.

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Thiony’s jawfish (Opistognathus thionyi) from Brazil. Photo: Raphael M. Macieira

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Brazilian dusky jawfish (Opistognathus vicinus) from Brazil. Photo: Raphael M. Macieira

This list of new critters is by no means complete. Many more species have been recently discovered, and many more will be discovered in the future. I find it very exciting that science isn’t ready yet and that there is so much more of the amazing natural world left to discover. If that doesn’t make you want to become a scientist, I don’t know what will… (We often have cookies in the office if that’s more your thing?)

New publication: Finding the species that make a muck diver tick

Now that my PhD thesis has been submitted, it is time to start blogging again! In the very near future I will write a new blog about this whole PhD-writing experience, but for now I will tell you about a new paper that has been published recently in the scientific journal Ocean and Coastal Management.

The paper, “Known unknowns: Conservation and research priorities for soft sediment fauna that supports a valuable scuba diving industry“, describes which species are most important to muck dive tourism, and how much research and conservation work has been done on them. I investigated this using a specific method that is pretty new and has not been used in conservation work until now.

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Who doesn’t like a frogfish (Antennarius pictus)?

Since these the method and the results will be of interest to different people, this blog is split in two parts:

  1. How did I do the research?
  2. What are the results?

If you are a scuba diver, a dive professional, a travel agent or otherwise mostly interested in the cute animals, it’s completely fine to head straight to number two (even though you will be missing out). If you are a resource manager, work for an NGO, are interested in marketing, or conduct research on flagship species, definitely read the first part of this blog as well!

First section: the Best – Worst Scaling method and why everyone should start using it

wwf-logoIt is important to first think about why anyone would care about which species are important to muck dive tourism, or any kind of tourism by extension. The obvious answer would be “marketing”, if you know which species attract the tourists, you can use them in your advertising and that way attract more tourists. If that is too capitalistic for you, remember that dive tourism provides (mostly) sustainable incomes to thousands of people around the world. But there is more, people might not visit a destination, but still care very deeply about certain species. This principle has been used (very successfully) by many conservation organisations to set up fundraising campaigns. The best known example is probably the World Wildlife Fund, which uses the panda bear as a logo, even if they are trying to protect many more species.

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Blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.) are popular with divers, maybe because of the cuteness combined with its deadly bite?

With that in mind, how do you find out which are the animals that people care about? You can obviously just ask people what they like, get them to make a list of top 5 animals, rank a number of animals in preferred order, give scores to certain animals, etc. But there are some serious problems with most of these methods such as:

  • They are not always reliable, since some people will be consistently more or less positive, or have cultural biases, throwing off your scaling
  • They can be very labour-intensive (=expensive) to properly design and collect data on
  • Statistical analyses of the results are usually very hard to get right
  • It is very difficult to say how the preferences vary between different groups of people (male-female, age, nationality, etc.)

To overcome these issues, we used the “Best-Worst scaling method” and compared it to a traditional survey. This method has been around for a few years, but is mostly used in food marketing (wine!) and patient care in medical research. The big benefit of Best-Worst scaling is that doing the stats is really easy, and without too much extra effort you can also easily interpret how different groups have different preferences.

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Flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) might not be popular with researchers, but divers love them!

Without going into too much detail, the basic design of Best-Worst scaling is that you ask people what they would like MOST and LEAST from a fixed set of animals (or any other thing you are investigating). There are plenty of online platforms (we used Qualtrics) that allow you to design this kind of question, so it’s quick, easy and cheap. Getting results is as simple as subtracting the amount of times an animal was picked as most preferred and the number of times it was least preferred.

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Example of a Best-Worst Scaling question

The reason I am describing this method here, is that it is just not known enough in the conservation, or even tourism world. It has the potential to allow all kinds of organisations with limited funding (NGOs, marine parks, or even dive centers) to investigate why people would visit / where they will go / what they care about. Which, eventually, might lead to more research and conservation on those species.

Second section: Which species drive muck dive tourism?

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The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), number 1 on many muck divers’ wish list

The results of the surveys won’t come as a shock for avid muck divers or people in dive tourism, but do seem to surprise from people unfamiliar with muck diving. Here is the top 10:

  1. Mimic octopus / wunderpus
  2. Blue ringed octopus
  3. Rhinopias
  4. Flamboyant cuttlefish
  5. Frogfish
  6. Pygmy seahorses
  7. Other octopus species (e.g. Mototi octopus)
  8. Rare crabs (e.g. Boxer crabs)
  9. Harlequin shrimp
  10. Nudibranchs

While other species such as seahorses or ghostpipefishes are also important to muck divers, a dive location that does not offer the potential to see at least a few of the top 10 species is unlikely to attract many divers.

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Nudibranchs (Tambja sp.) are always popular with photographers

Some differences did occur between diver groups of divers. Older and experienced divers seemed more interested in rare shrimp than other groups. The preferences of starting divers was poorly defined, but their dislikes were most pronounced than experienced divers. Photographers in particular are interested in species like the mimic octopus, potentially because of their interesting behaviour, although that would have to be investigated in a follow-up study.

The final step of our study was to look at how much we know about the animals most important for muck dive tourism. The answer is simple: not much. For most species researchers have not yet investigated if they are threatened, or not enough is known about them to assess their risk of extinction. It does not look like this will chance soon either. The combined amount of research conducted on the top 10 species in the last 20 years is less than 15%  of the numbers of papers published on bottlenose dolphins (1 species) in the same time. Which are not threatened by extinction in case you were wondering. To give you another comparison, from 1997 until now, 2 papers have been published on the flamboyant cuttlefish, compared to more than 3000 on bottlenose dolphins.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we should stop researching dolphins, but perhaps it is time that some of the research effort and conservation money is also invested in the critters that make muck divers tick?

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Harlequin shrimp (Hymenocera elegans), popular with divers AND the aquarium trade

Guestblog: Frogblogging – insights in the world of frogfishes

IMG_0737This month’s guestblog is written by Daniel Geary, the resident marine biologist at Atmosphere Resort in Dauin, Philippines. It’s safe to say that Daniel is very passionate AND knowledgeable about frogfishes. He’s been studying them for years in Dauin and even wrote (and teaches) a PADI speciality course on these awesome critters! In this blog he gives a taste of some of the many ways frogfish are fantastic and deserve a closer look.


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Longlure frogfish (Antennarius multiocellatus) from Florida

Frogfish. You have probably heard of them, and if you’re a diver you might have seen one or two before. You have definitely swam right past a few of them without knowing they were there. Although most of them have a face only a mother could love, behind this outer layer exists a well-adapted, expert fisherman with amazing camouflage capabilities. They are more than just a lazy, camouflaged blob that sometimes doesn’t change location for a year.

Frogfish are anglerfish, although they are what I call a shallow, less ugly version of anglerfish. They have a rod and a lure that they actively fish with when necessary. Their fins look like limbs that somewhat resemble those of a frog. They must inhale water though their mouth to then push it out of their gills which aids in locomotion. Frogfish are experts at changing color and can change color multiple times, usually to blend in with their surroundings. Normally a full color change takes about 2 weeks, but frogfish have been witnessed to change color in under ten seconds when disturbed by divers’ bubbles and needing to switch to a different coral.

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The same giant frogfish (Antennarius commersoni) changing colour in two weeks

There are around 50 species of frogfish, with a new species or two being described every few years. Frogfish can be found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters (but not in the Mediterranean). Some species are only found at a handful of dive sites, others are only found in one country or continent. A handful of species are found in the majority of the warm water areas, but only the Sargassumfish is found worldwide. There have been a few occasions where Sargassumfish were found all the way up in the cold waters of Norway and Rhode Island – way out of their preferred habitat, but they live their lives floating in seaweed and/or other debris and are at the mercy of the ocean currents.

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Sargassum frogfish (Histrio histrio) often wash up on the shore of the Atmosphere housereef, when they do, they get released back into deeper water

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Painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) using its lure to attract prey

Frogfish are ambush predators which is why they seem to be so lazy. The less they move, the better predators they can become due to algae, coral polyps, and any other organisms that use the frogfish as habitat. I call this being lazily efficient, or efficiently lazy. Frogfish will make minimal adjustments to their body positioning before they begin to lure prey, although sometimes the frogfish are so camouflaged that they don’t need to actively attract prey. Frogfish swallow their prey whole by opening their mouth and creating an instant vacuum since the volume of the mouth increases up to twelve times the original amount. This means frogfish can swallow their prey whole in six milliseconds. They feed on a variety of organisms, depending on where the frogfish lives. Generally they like small fish like cardinalfish, shrimps and crabs, and sometimes other frogfish. They can comfortably swallow prey that is their own size, and with a bit of effort they can swallow prey up to twice their size, although this can result in the death of the frogfish if the prey item is too large and gets stuck in their throat. Frogfish do not have many predators, but they are sometimes preyed on by moray eels, triggerfish, and lizardfish. Flounder will sometimes suck up juveniles from the sand and fishermen in the Philippines have been known to capture and eat Giant Frogfish.

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This giant frogfish (Antennarius commersoni) bit of more than it could chew and did not live to tell the tale. Photo taken at Apo Island

 

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Frogfish egg raft

Frogfish have been known to eat each other if they get too close, especially after failed mating attempts. A male will approach a female when she is bloated with eggs. He will do his best to show off for her, which includes expanding his fins to their maximum sizes, rapidly opening and closing his mouth, as well as violently shaking his body. At this point, the female either accepts him or tries to eat him. If accepted, he gets to stand next to the female, which is the frogfish equivalent of holding hands. Once he is ready to mate, he will start again with his flashy moves, but this time bouncing around the female. Sometimes he has to physically swim her off the substrate to mate, other times she is able to swim on her own. Once they are a meter or two above the substrate, the female releases her egg raft, causing her to spin rapidly. The male then fertilizes this egg raft, also spinning rapidly. Both the frogfish then return to the bottom as the eggs float off into the distance. The eggs will hatch a few days later and become tiny planktonic frogfish babies, which will continue to float for a month or two until they are big enough to settle in the substrate, change color, and begin their lives as adorable frogfish.

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A male (red) painted frogfish (Antennarius pictus) trying to convince the female (yellow) to mate

Stay tuned for more frogfish insights coming in December, where I’ll write about the history of frogfish research and describe a handful of frogfish species, including a potentially “new” species. Until then, keep an eye for frogfish on all your dives, especially if you’re in warm water.