SAN DIEGO (CBS 8) - A rare species of fish found mainly off the coast of southern Australia is making its way to San Diego.
Named after sacred dragons of Chinese mythology, leafy and weedy sea dragons are magnificent and unique. But for aquariums like Birch, they're also an expensive and difficult species to display.
"Really some of the most lovely animals in the ocean are not endangered, but they live in very small populations in local areas off Australia, and very few are allowed to be exported every year," Birch Aquarium Executive Director Nigella Hillgarth said.
Birch scientists traveled to southern Australia last year to research sea dragons in native waters and closely model their environment to design the aquarium's new breeding lab.
"I was able to go diving with the in their natural habitat and observe them in the wild, how they feed and what their natural habitat looks like, where they occur and their natural behaviors," Birch Aquarium co-curator Leslee Mastushigel said. "The goal really is conservation. We really want to be able to breed the animals in captivity so that we don't have to take them from the wild."
Back home, construction is now underway for the sea dragons' state-of-the-art lab, made possible by a $300,000 grant
"So we're designing an exhibit that has a lot more height, a lot more width and depth so that they would be able to have more space and do their courting and feel comfortable and also have little bit of isolation," Mastushigel said.
Researchers plan to manipulate the sea dragons' natural life and temperature cycles throughout the year to produce seasonal changes, which trigger breeding and reproduction. Birch is also hoping to duplicate its renowned breeding success with the sea dragons' close relative the sea horse.
"This sea horse propagation room holds about seven different species of sea horses," Mastushigel said. 'We've sent out about 3,000 sea horses over the past 15 years. The leafy and weedy sea dragons are just so spectacular looking."
"To be able to breed these animals, distribute them to other zoos and aquariums is really going to help tie people to the ocean," Hillgarth said.
The sea dragon breeding lab is scheduled to open this summer. Although it's private, we'll be able to monitor breeding progress through a live-circuit TV.