trainer holding seadragonWhen the Fishes department moved a leafy seadragon into the 4,700-gallon kelp forest habitat on the Abbott Oceanarium’s Coastal Walkway habitat, the aquarists watched closely to make sure that the more animated weedy seadragons didn’t slurp up all the live mysid shrimp before the leafy got his share. “That’s when we noticed that the leafy wasn’t eating on his own,” aquarist Erika Moss says.

What to do? Hand-feed the seadragon, of course.

Amazingly, not just one, but three methods have been developed for assist-feeding delicate, tube-snouted seadragons, and Erika was familiar with them all after attending the International Seahorse Symposium hosted by Shedd in 2011.

One, the “Hoover method,” involves bringing food close enough to the fish’s mouth for it to see it and suck it in. Food can also be put directly into the seadragon’s mouth, which prompts it to slurp it down. The last resort is tube-feeding, “something we try to avoid,” says Erika.

After the “Hoover” didn’t work, the Fishes team succeeded in feeding the leafy by the second method. “As we were holding him,” Erika continues, “we examined him to make sure there wasn’t something physically wrong with him, and we noticed that one of his eyes was completely white instead of the brown-black it’s supposed to be. The other eye had a white spot developing on it. And I wondered, maybe he can’t see.”

Vision problems have been reported in older seadragons, but this one is 3 years old, puzzling the aquarists who care for him. “We’ve never seen one’s eyes affected like this before,” Erika says.

Because the seadragon was healthy in all other respects, the aquarists chose not to try to transport the fish—all fringe and filaments, armor and angles, pointy projections and that long, long snout—to the animal health center for examination. The most important thing was keeping him fed, which Erika has been doing for a year.

The leafy, whom Erika calls Lucky because he is a survivor, eats once a day. While she broadcasts tiny mysid shrimp—raised at Shedd—across the water to the weedies, she uses frozen mysids and krill, which are a lot easier to grip, to hand-feed Lucky. “The live food is gone in two or three minutes, but it takes me up to eight minutes to feed Lucky.”

Technique is everything. “It took us about a week to figure out the best way to feed him and get a pattern down.”

Not so with Lucky. The leafy quickly picked up on what he was supposed to do when the food went in his mouth. “I think it was one try and he got it. Immediately after we put the food in his mouth, he slurped it up.”

No matter who on the seadragon team does the feeding, it’s done the same way every time to give Lucky the best opportunity to fill his stomach.

A feeding session starts as Erika, positioned out of sight above the habitat, gently lowers a long-handled net into the habitat, threading it through the kelp fronds. Getting the soft net below Lucky seems to be a cue for him to swim toward the surface. Two hands appear underwater almost magically, the left one loosely grasping the 10-inch-long leafy around his armored torso, the other delicately inserting the barely visible zooplankton into his tube-shaped mouth. A slight backward jerk of the seadragon’s head indicates that he’s sucked the food down.

“He doesn’t like the really big mysids,” says Erika. “I think he likes the small krill best. But if you don’t get it headfirst—if you get it tailfirst—he’ll spit it out. I think it’s just a feeling in his mouth. He doesn't like the tail going down first.”

As for what Erika feels when she holds Lucky, “It’s like holding a bunch of toothpicks. You can feel every bone in his body.” Like the closely related seahorses, seadragons have bony plates covered with a thin layer of skin instead of the usual scales. “And he has… ‘spikes’ isn’t the right word, but parts of his bony structure stick out and hang off him, too, like thorns. He feels a little bit rough.”

When the leafy has had his fill, Erika opens her left hand and he drifts to a quiet spot in the habitat. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says. 

Karen Furnweger and Kate Williams, web editors