A gorgeous new image shows a common sea dragon dad floating through a seaweed meadow with his jewel-like eggshell in tow.
The image took the top spot in the Close Action category of the Underwater Photography Guides 2022 Ocean Art (opens in a new tab) competition.
Common sea dragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) typically lives at a depth of around 13 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters), although they can dive down to 160 feet (50 m), according to the Georgia Aquarium (opens in a new tab). They usually start hatching in late July or early August.
The eggs start out a beautiful shade of deep magenta, fading to brown as the baby dragons develop. Green or brown algae sometimes grow along the father’s tail, which helps provide further camouflage. “After a few weeks, you start to see eye spots inside each (egg)”, Greg Rouse (opens in a new tab), a marine biologist at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was not involved in the photo contest, told Live Science. Rouse said the eggs pictured here are “pretty fresh.”
Unlike most vertebrates, male sea dragon parents are the ones who invest time and energy in caring for unhatched eggs. Closely related groups, including seahorses and pipefish, also display this unusual strategy. However, seahorses and some pipefish sport a specialized kangaroo-like pouch to hold their eggs, whereas sea dragons simply stick their eggs to the underside of their tails. A clutch of sea dragon eggs usually lays between 100 and 180, depending on the size of the female.
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All sea dragons are endemic to the coastal waters of Australia. They are quite difficult to breed in captivity: Of the three species of sea dragon, only the common (or weed) dragon has been successfully bred in captivity, and it is not large enough to sustain a large population. “Most of the sea dragons people see in the aquarium are caught in the wild,” Rouse said. To help monitor the impact of this on sea dragon numbers, Rouse established the citizen science project Seadragon Quest (opens in a new tab)where diving enthusiasts can record their encounters with these fish.
A sea dragon dad is far from the only extreme marine parents, and Ocean Art’s other parent of the year is a mother octopus. In an amazingly detailed photo deserves best in show (opens in a new tab), the octopus mom carefully holds her brood in her eight arms, gently running water over them to ensure the developing babies get enough oxygen. The photographer identified it as a Caribbean reef octopus (Octopus briareus) and snapped this photo in the balmy waters off West Palm Beach, Florida.
“For warm water species (octopus), the eggs develop quite quickly. But for colder species they take much longer,” Mike Vecchione (opens in a new tab)a cephalopod a zoologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Live Science that they were not involved in the photo contest. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (opens in a new tab) discovered a female deep-sea octopus that held onto her eggs for four years – the longest known incubation period for an octopus.
The octopus pictured here won’t have to wait that long for her eggs to hatch. However, keeping them safe is the last thing she will do. Mother octopuses do not eat or take care of themselves while protecting their young from predators. “They’re in bad shape by the time the eggs hatch,” Vecchione said, “and as far as we know, they all die shortly thereafter.”