For the next leg of our macro adventure, we are going to look at something really bizarre, the Dragon Seamoth!
Dragon Seamoths, also known as the Short Dragonfish, Dwarf Seamoth or the Common Seamoth, are part of the small Pegasidae family known for their flattened bodies, large pectoral fins, long snouts and fantastic camouflage. There are only around 5 different species of Seamoths and you really need to keep your eyes open to spot them.
What’s in a name?
Seamoths get their common name from their appearance, looking like a dusty grey moth with their large spread pectoral fins looking like a moth’s wings and their grey camouflage. However, Dragon Seamoths are named after their scaly exoskeleton, which is made up of a series interlocking bony plates like a medieval suit of armour.
Their scientific name also reflects this; ‘draconis’ comes from the Latin for dragon, ‘draco’, and the first part comes from two Greek words, ‘eurys’ meaning long and ‘pege’ from Pegasus, the legendary winged horse.
Habitat and distribution.
Dragon Seamoths can be found throughout the Indian Ocean, western and central Pacific Ocean and the Red Sea. Whilst the species has been seen as shallow as 3m, it can be most often observed between 37 and 91m. It can be seen in bays and estuaries but this is not very common due to the increased depth they prefer to live at. However, in the Red Sea and the Philippines, they can be seen between 1.1 to 20m hiding amongst coral rubble and camouflaged against sandy bottoms.
Looks that kill.
These critters are one of the weirdest things you can find on the reef! I always think they look a little bit like the red-lipped batfish, only with a longer, more pointed snout.
Adult Dragon Seamoths have short, squat bodies which range in colour from dark, mottled browns to pale greys and whites. The Dragon Seamoth is actually able to change its body colour to suit its surroundings and better blend into the background so as to not be seen. They have tails roughly to the same length as their bodies with a small caudal fin, speed is not the first choice of the Seamoth so the tail is enough for a quick burst of speed but not for extended swimming.
The pectoral fins of the Dragon Seamoth are beautiful and are often the best way to spot them! They are each around the same size as the body of the fish with thick fin rays stretching out like the wings of a bat. Usually white to cream in colour, there is also a vivid blue or lilac band across them. This band is a good way to identify the Dragon Seamoth from other species of Seamoths. These large pectoral fins are used by the fish to crawl across the seabed like an ancient pterosaur or dragon, like their namesake, and they are great to watch doing so.
Another distinguishing feature of the Dragon Seamoth is their long rostrum or snout. Usually a much darker black or brown than the rest of the body, the mouth of the fish is located underneath it rather than at the tip of it. The long rostrum is used to burrow into the sand or seabed to get at prey which the Seamoth eats with an extendable, tube-like mouth.
Dragon Seamoths, like a lot of the fish we look at, are broadcast spawners. This means that eggs and sperm cells are released into the water column where they can mix freely before drifting away. These fish appear to be monogamous, pairing for life with a mate and moving around in pairs. It is unknown whether or not the fish will find another mate if the other dies or if they stay alone.
Spawning occurs during a dance like display between the two fish. They glide slowly upwards to around 50cm above the seabed, with their undersides pressed closely together. The Seamoths then rise up very quickly together and release their gametes before circling back down towards the seabed. I cannot find much information about what governs when the fish breed but I imagine it to be similar to fish like dragonets and mandarinfish, breeding at dusk before sleeping at night.
Life on the reef.
Often spotted on sandy bottoms and amongst coral fragments or other places to hide, the Dragon Seamoth is a diurnal species. This means they are active during the day and sleep at night. One article I read about the Seamoth suggests that during the night, the Seamoth simply stops and sleeps where it is. While this would normally be a bad idea for a creature, it does show how much the Seamoth trusts its camouflage abilities.
There is another interesting thing to mention about the Dragon Seamoths skin. I said earlier that it gets the dragon name from its interlocking bony scales that act like a suit of armour. Unlike many other fish, Dragon Seamoths shed their scales all in one go, leaving a cast much like a snake or crustacean. This is done as often as every 5 days and it is believed to be linked to the camouflage of the fish, helping it maintain the colour of its surroundings. It may also be to stop things like algae, hydroids or other encrusting life from attaching to its slow moving body.
Using suction from its tube-like mouth, the Dragon Seamoth feeds of a variety of different foods, ranging from different planktonic organisms and small crustaceans to the highly nutritious eggs of other fish. They can also burrow using their long snout to reach worms and molluscs hiding in the sediment.
Lastly, Dragon Seamoths grow to a maximum size of 10cm with there being little difference between male and females of the species. I cannot find any information about the maximum lifespan of these fish but if we compare them to other fish with similar life strategies, such as the mandarinfish, we can estimate a similar 10-15 year lifespan. This is, however, purely speculation and should only be taken as such.
It took me a very long time to find my first Seamoth! The local guides thought this was hilarious as a pair of them used to live next to one of the mooring lines we went up and down at least twice every day! As the coral rubble around the mooring line was a deep pinky red colour, this was the colour our Dragon Seamoths chose for their bodies. They would crawl around a small area hunting for food, stopping still as a diver approached. If you hovered nearby, the fish would start rooting around for food again. They always made me think of a creature out of a monster movie or someone trying to walk up a moving train, grabbing the seats to steady themselves as they went.
During the day, the pair of Seamoths were fairly active which I believe might have been caused by the site having high diver traffic. As I never dived that particular site during at night I cannot say what the fish did but every morning, lo and behold they were pretty much where I left them.
It is worth remembering when hunting for the Seamoth to move slowly and carefully while keeping your eyes peeled. As they are small and found on sandy seabeds, make sure all your kit is stowed properly so nothing dangles. Keep your fins angled away from the bottom as well to make sure you don’t stir up the sediment and bury anything. The same applies to photography, be aware of where you and your kit are and make sure not to damage anything with a careless fin kick. As I have said in previous articles, think about the eyes of the fish. Try to take one or two shots that you’ve set up with care rather than dozens to protect the eyes of the fish.
The bottom line.
A Dragon Seamoth is a great critter to find on a dive and a unique addition to any underwater photographers portfolio. I saw them in the Philippines (on my second home, Malapascua!) and we have a heap of great trips heading that way if you’d like to see them as well! Martin Edge is running a photography masterclass at the Bunaken Oasis in September 2018 and Emma Farrell is running a freediving trip there in October 2018 so if either of those takes your fancy, drop us a line and we can get you booked on. If you want to find out more about photography, Mario Vitalini has a cracking blog here as well to help you hone your skills. There might be a macro one coming soon so stay tuned!
Whilst difficult to spot, Dragon Seamoths are a great reward for a diligent diver and fantastic to watch as they go about their day. You’ll never see anything quite like one so when you do, stop a while and check them out. You won’t regret it!