By Cailey Rizzo
Updated: May 28, 2019

One of the world’s largest sea dragon habitats opened in Southern California this week, drawing astonished visitors to ogle at the tanks containing the seahorse’s lesser-known cousin.

Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego opened its new sea dragon tanks on May 17. The new permanent exhibition holds 5,375 gallons of water, about the equivalent of 70 bathtubs. The display has been created as an “ideal environment to breed leafy sea dragons, something that has never been done in captivity before,” according to the aquarium.

Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The Leafy Seadragon is known for its uncanny resemblance to a piece of kelp. “They look like something out of this world,” Leslee Matsushige, the aquarium’s associate curator, told the Associated Press. “When people see them move, you hear them say, ‘What? That’s alive? Wow! That’s crazy.’”

The exhibition launch is especially exciting considering very few aquariums keep sea dragons in captivity. There are only two types of sea dragon, leafy and weedy, both of which are in the aquarium’s tank. They are found off the coast of Australia in temperate waters, typically in remote areas and in small clusters. As such, the population of the wild sea dragon is still widely unknown.

Erik Jepsen/Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Scientists are hoping that the tanks at the Birch Aquarium will foster breeding, which they believe is increasingly important to preserve the population of sea dragons during periods of climate change and warming oceans. They hope that if breeding programs are successful, it will reduce the number of sea dragons that are taken illegally from their natural environment. The animal is often taken as an illegal pet or used for alternative medicine.

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