Leafy Sea dragons are a rare, delicate species who can die of exhaustion if they develop a condition that keeps them from staying buoyant.
When the Florida Aquarium acquired three of the fragile rare sea dragons from their native southern Australia last spring, staff soon realized that their new marine charges were having trouble staying upright.
The swim bladders in the sea dragons were not normal as they grew and Dr. Ari Fustukjian recognized that without intervention, the animals would soon die because they were unable to keep themselves from sinking to the bottom of their habitat.
He handcrafted special prosthetic devices using pieces of neoprene from a wet suit to individually fit each leafy seadragon with their own Buoyancy Control Device, which acts as a prosthetic swim bladder and helps them hover in the water without exerting effort.
“Being able to put a on new device and immediately see them return to a normal posture, and even eat, is very rewarding,” he said.
Dr. Fustukjian has now handcrafted up to 12 of these devices over the last few months to help the growing marine creatures. The leafy seadragons can now be safely returned this week to their habitat inside the Florida Aquarium which is based in Tampa.
The leafy sea dragon is extremely fragile and only a few dozen exist in aquariums across the United States.
Close relatives of the seahorse, leafy seadragons are listed in South Australia as a “Totally Protected Species,” which means they may be an endangered species in the future.