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contact: Kathie Fulgham - 423/785-3007 or Katrina Craven - 423/785-3011

It's Not Easy Being Weedy...
Bringing up Baby Seadragons is a Challange

By Katrina Craven
Public Relations Coordinator

Like proud parents, members of the Tennessee Aquarium’s seahorse team carefully watch, record and discuss the progress of the newest additions to their family – a group of twelve weedy seadragons born at the Aquarium in September.

The Aquarium is one of only two known institutions in the world to successfully breed these rare animals and raise them. The breeding program has given the Aquarium a great deal of information about these rarely studied animals, from seadragon mating rituals to the feeding habits of newly hatched babies.

Breeding and caring for seadragons is not for the faint of heart. Like parents with small children, the seahorse team must adhere to a strict regimen of feeding, monitoring and then cleaning up after these creatures.

“To successfully breed the weedy seadragon, you must ensure that the animals are sexually mature, healthy, that they have good nutrition and a proper environment for mating,” said Senior Aquarist, Thom Demas.

While this may sound simple, it requires a great deal of diligence. When the weedy seadragons arrive at the Aquarium they are approximately 3 months old and are quarantined and treated with a fresh water bath to remove any parasites. The seadragons are then converted from eating live food to eating frozen food. The switch to frozen food helps keep the animals disease-free. Because seadragons have no stomachs, the frozen food must be of high quality to ensure the animals get adequate nutrition.

In addition to their nutritional requirements, the weedy seadragons need an extremely clean environment. Seadragons are very sensitive to parasites and any foreign matter in the tanks can give those parasites a place to grow. This means that the tank filtration systems must be of high quality and the tanks must be scrubbed down each week. Each tank is also sterilized using ultraviolet lights.

“Recirculating tanks give the parasites an advantage,” Demas said. “We have to clean and vacuum the tanks daily to make sure we don’t give the parasites an opportunity to get ahead of us.”

Seadragons reach sexual maturity after two years and usually begin to display courtship behavior. However, they must have the proper environment for breeding. The water temperature must stay between 60 and 66 degrees Fahrenheit, the seadragons must have at least twelve hours of light, they must have plenty of food and a water column of proper height.

“Water column height is key,” Demas explained. “When weedy seadragons mate, they do a courtship dance and then swim up the water column while facing each other. This is when the egg transfer occurs. If the water column is too short, the animals get frustrated and drop the eggs on the bottom of the tank.”

The diligence of the seahorse team paid off and on July 21, 2002, a successful egg transfer took place. Twenty-eight eggs were transferred to the male seadragon, who carried them on the underside of his tail.

After the egg transfer, the male was separated from his tank mates in a smaller container. By sequestering the male, the aquarists hoped to reduce stress to him and the eggs. The container also made it easier to retrieve the newly hatched babies.

The aquarists had several problems to overcome when dealing with the expectant seahorse dad. They had to ensure the seahorse received adequate nutrition and had a environment, while making sure he did not experience stress due to being moved or handled. Poor nutrition, dirty water and stress can cause dropped eggs, premature births, disease or even death.

In September 24 eggs hatched. It was a great accomplishment, but meant even more work for the seahorse team.

After hatching, the baby seadragons were placed in a krisel tank in the quarantine room. Krisel tanks create a circular current, and this kept the babies’ food moving in the water column, making it easier for them to feed. The current also kept the babies off the floor of the tank, out of any waste material or leftover food.

Not only did the baby seadragons require constant feeding (every four hours), but the size of their food changed as they grew. This meant that aquarists had to have several sizes of mysid shrimp on hand at all times. Of course, constant feeding also meant constant cleaning and members of the seahorse team had to vacuum the tank at least two times a day.

The seahorse team also photographs, measures and evaluates the babies each day, collecting data for scientific research. Many of the babies were born prematurely, but 12 have survived and continue to grow. They’ve reached several important milestones, including their three-month birthday.

The seadragons continue to exhibit mating behavior and aquarists are hopeful that more successful egg transfers are in the future.

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The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $14 per adult and $7.50 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.75 per adult and $5.25 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $18 for adults and $10.50 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at www.tnaqua.org or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

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