Food Feature: Swimming with seadragons

A special delivery from Mr. Mom

If I were a male leafy seadragon living in a luminescent glass cylinder at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, I would float gracefully through the water, propelled by nearly invisible translucent dorsal and pectoral fins and feast on a menu of frozen mysid shrimp fed by attentive aquarists. I would be adored by visitors who would gaze at my colorful red-orange body and leafy green appendages and marvel at my resemblance to a Walt Disney character. When I was ready to mate, I'd strut my stuff with an erotic heads-up-heads-down motion. If she truly loved me, she'd do the same. As beautiful coral eggs developed in her lower abdomen (we don't have stomachs), I'd flip upside down to show her that my tail was ready to fertilize them. And at the perfect time, she'd deposit the eggs into the cups on my tail and float to the top, exhausted.

If I were the only expectant male seadragon at the aquarium, the one they call "Dad," carrying the babies would be up to me. My aquarists, Thom Demas and Shelly Scott, would eagerly await the delivery of my babies and feed me superbly because I have made this aquarium the only facility in the U.S. that has successfully bred seadragons two years in a row. When the eggs dropped from my tail to the bottom of the tank, my work would be done and I could turn the job of raising them over to Demas and Scott.

But alas, I'm a mere human female obsessed with the process of males carrying the babies. (Why didn't I think of that?) And since chances are slim that I'll ever become an aquarist who parents seahorses or one of 100 volunteer divers who swim with the fishes, I'll have to visit the current exhibit, Seahorses: Beyond Imagination.

The seadragon, Dad, is one of approximately 20 seadragons and approximately 400 seahorses and pipefish on display at the aquarium for the next two years. Because birthing seadragons in captivity is so rare, Demas and Scott whisked him away from his mate and friends as soon as they spotted the eggs.

"Males don't eat their own babies like some species but other males might consider the eggs hors d'oeuvres," said Demas. As soon as the babies drop off the male's tale (a lengthy process spanning weeks), they are carefully sucked up with a turkey baster and squirted into a Kreisel tank, a fish nursery, where they become feeding machines. As of last week, six seahorses had hatched and more were on the way. Since the young are born unable to see or swim, the tank helps keep them buoyant so they can gorge on live mysid shrimp three times a day. Though only 28 of the original 250 eggs made it to the male's tail, the birth gives the aquarium the potential to make them available to other facilities and take some pressure off the wild, said Demas.

Where the leafy seadragons resemble animated seaweed, the weedy seadragons are darker with colored striations and have appendages more like a plant that has failed to thrive. Equally resplendent, the seahorses range in size from the tiny Dwarf — at less than an inch long — to the Giant Pacific that grows to nearly a foot. With eyes that work independently from one another, equine heads, long snouts, prehensile tale and bony plates of armor, seahorses seem something out of a fairy tale. Yellow, potbellied and lined, they "gallop" through the water and often entwine tails making the viewer wonder if they are engaging in sex or mortal battle. "Neither," says Demas. "They use their tails to attach themselves to kelp or whatever is handy."

All males in the family of Syngnathidae — seahorses, seadragons and pipefish — carry and nurture eggs. In seahorses, it is the male that becomes pregnant and each fertilized egg is embedded in the lining of his pouch. Pipefish, that resemble snout-nosed plumbing pipes, mate much like the seadragons with the female laying the eggs. The male fertilizes and carries them to term. Unlike the seadragon who uses his tail for the incubator, the male pipefish attaches the eggs to the underside of his belly. None of the species care for their young once they're born.

To get a glimpse of the inner sanctum of the aquarium, we take the Behind the Scenes tour, offered daily for the super-curious. Led by grants coordinator and docent Kathleen Meehan-Coop, we begin in the pump room. That may sound dull, but it's a kaleidoscope of color-coded pipes — a closed-loop system that cleans dirty water then re-circulates it. Dark hued pipes and tanks denote dirty water; light colored, clean. Blue is fresh water, green is salt; beige and white are backwash drains. Red and orange hold water that needs heating; yellow and mauve, cooling. A state-of-the art Landstar computer system monitors the filtration system, measuring temperature, humidity, water levels and purity. Human biologists still frequently test water samples taken from the whopping 88,000 gallons of water combined with 25,600 gallons of Instant Ocean that are purchased each year.

In the "kitchen," volunteers prepare and package 1,200 pounds of food for the animals. Only restaurant quality seafood like shrimp, squid, mussels and shellfish are used in accordance with all restaurant health regulations. Different types of seafood are fed to different species within the same tank, hence the need for divers. Barracudas and sharks gobble down squid bodies; the stingrays prefer shrimp, silversides and smelt; and the pirapatanga, a kind of piranha, surprisingly, eat only veggies.

After several stops including the sweltering climate- controlled Delta exhibit, we go behind the Gulf of Mexico tank and feed squishy fish and veggie-flavored gelatin cubes to all comers. If I were a leafy male seadragon at the Tennessee Aquarium, I'd mug back at the humans who gawk at my beauty and wonder about their lives on terra firma. If I were not a seadragon, I'd like to be human for a day and see the world outside my tank.


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