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Meet the Sea Dragon Breeder at Birch Aquarium

Spend a day in the life with Leslee Matsushige
Photo by Jay Reilly

By Sarah Pfledderer

Listen to Leslee Matsushige talk about her day at the office and she might pass for a stay-at-home mom who never left the house.

“I love it when they poop, because you know they’re eating.”

“All my gray hair is from them.”

“I feel like I’m always counting dragons.”

Sea dragons, that is.

For several years, Matsushige has been working behind the scenes at Birch Aquarium to put her babies on display in Seadragons & Seahorses, Birch’s newest permanent exhibit and also the next phase in their sea dragon breeding program.

It all started back in 1992 when Birch opened its current location and wanted to breed seahorses. They recruited Matsushige from her native Hawai‘i to spearhead it.

She started with just two Pacific seahorses, fished right out of San Diego Bay, and over a span of 10 years grew the collection from one to 13 species (there are about 42 different species in the world).

From there, they introduced the seahorses’ unique-as-can-be relative, the sea dragons, as an attraction and then a breeding program for them in 2012. But the aquarium’s kept most of its collection under wraps. “We wanted to keep cameras on them and manipulate their lighting and temperature to give them those natural environmental cues to hopefully get them to breed.”

There are only three known species of sea dragon, all found only in Southern Australia and requiring a special permit from the Australian government to acquire them.

Birch has 11 “weedy” and three “leafy” dragons who, as it turns out, aren’t so randy in captivity. Here’s how they do the deed: The female dragon deposits the bright orange eggs onto the male’s tail, and he carries them until they hatch.

“Our females produce a lot of eggs, but we’ve never had a successful transfer. The male and female would swim together and run out of space to the surface as she released the eggs.”

Only a few aquariums have been successful at breeding the dragons, and that’s only been with “weedies.” “Leafies have never been bred in captivity.”

That’s just what Matsushige and the rest of her colleagues in Birch’s husbandry department are hoping to achieve with the new exhibit and its focal point—a huge tank. Holding 5,375 gallons of water, it’s twice the width and three feet taller than the lab habitat, and it better mimics Southern Australia’s waters, setting the mood for matchmaking.

On the husbandry side, Matsushige and her colleagues are in charge of everything—monitoring the dragons’ health, feeding them mysis shrimp twice a day, tirelessly cleaning the tank, even everyday tasks like mopping.

Each day, Matsushige walks into the lab with a refractometer and thermometer in her pocket to check the tank’s salinity and temperature, respectively. She also troubleshoots the dragons’ life support, a massive filtration system that recirculates their water.

It goes to show the most important part isn’t the breeding, but ensuring Matsushige’s babies are happy.

“Observation is everything,” she says.”You need to know your animals and if they’re healthy. That’s our top priority.” Spoken like a true guardian.

See It!

Seadragons & Seahorses

Birch Aquarium, La Jolla birchaquarium

Meet the Sea Dragon Breeder at Birch Aquarium

Photo by Jay Reilly

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