Chasing Dragons

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By Sheree Marris (with photographs by Rob Peatling)  – Science, Art and Artificial Intelligence for conservation  

Dragons have captivated people’s imaginations for centuries. Featuring in movies, fantasy novels and folklore of many cultures around the world. Surprisingly there is some truth behind the ‘dragon tales’ although their form and function is less terrifying. They don’t have wings, breathe fire and one other minor detail… they’re found underwater.

Enter the magical world of Seadragons. An enchanting family of un-fish-like fish that are endemic to the southern shores of Australia. Three species exist, the Weedy Seadragon, Leafy Seadragon and recently discovered deep sea Ruby Seadragon.

Marine enthusiasts all around the world travel to these cooler climates to them… If they’re can find them.  They’re masters of camouflage and one of the few animals that move not to be seen. Their elaborate weed-like appendages blending seamlessly into their seaweed surroundings. The colour and structure of these growths are influenced by food and environmental conditions.

These fairy-tale like fish are from the Syngnathid family, which includes seahorses and pipefish. All are characterised by their fused jaws and long straw-like mouths used to suck up shrimps. An armour-plated skeleton protects them while delicate small transparent fins help them maneuverer. What also sets this family apart is that traditional roles have been reverse and it is male who carries the eggs.

Females lay a delicate strip of between 250 – 300 bright red berry-like eggs which seem to magically adhere to a special patch of skin on the underside of the male’s tail. This skin forms a protective cup around eggs, where they’ll remain for two months. They emerge from the eggs fully formed baby seadragons with seaweed appendages allowing them to disappear instantly into their surrounds. And they need to. Like most fish, there is no parental care.

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Dr Nerida Wilson from the Western Australian Museum and University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences is surprisingly one of the few people who have studied seadragons in the wild. She grew up on the cooler southern shores and began her diving career amongst the forests home to seadragons. It was in these waters her passion for marine science was ignited and she studied the genetics of these species in the waters of Western Australia alongside Dr Gregory Rouse.

Their early genetic work showed lower levels of genetic diversity in populations of Weedy Seadragons on the east coast and Tasmania, compared to South Australia and Western Australia. This research gave them a baseline understanding of genetic connectivity between populations. Because seadragons don't have an effective dispersal stage, the populations were heavily structured between most locations and displayed low genetic diversity making them vulnerable.

One of the challenges during this research was ensuring they weren’t’ resampling the same individuals. It’s here they made another discovery, each Seadragon had unique markings on their bodies. What if they could use these images as a replacement for genetic testing? This approach would minimise animal disturbance while saving the time and expense of genetic testing. There was just one problem. The technology didn’t exist.

Fast forward 15 years, Dr Nerida and has career has come full circle The enchanting call of the dragon coupled with technological advancements has lured her back home to Australia to continue her research on these Fairy tale-like fish, with her colleague Dr Gregory Rouse from Scripps Institution of Oceanography where their vision to use the unique markings of seadragons to continue their research is being realised.

The return is timely. While the popularity and fascination of seadragons has grown exponentially, there is growing concerns about dwindling population numbers and distribution due to environmental changes.

As Dr Rouse highlights “Seadragons live in shallow algal habitats, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Habitat loss is concerning for several reasons, including seadragons’ limited mobility, and the fact that genetic diversity is low in the majority of known populations, which could result in less resilience to environmental stressors”.

“At the moment, we know little about the life histories of these unique fish. We suspect they don’t move far outside of small home ranges, but we need the community’s help to gather more information so that we can properly plan for their conservation”

Luckily seadragons are photogenic fish. For most underwater photographers it’s about capturing the beauty of these fish and is nothing more than a holiday snap. However, photos can capture all sorts of valuable information and when paired with artificial intelligence has the potential to track animals through time and space.

Enter Seadragon Search a new research program that harnesses underwater photography, science and computer power to conserve some of Australia’s most fascinating fish.  Launched this month by the Western Australian Museum and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego, it’s a cross collaboration across countries, research institutions, divers, community groups and kind-hearted philanthropists.

The project is driven by technology partner WildMe, a software developer that is combatting extinction with citizen science by using intelligence tools to collect and analyze data from threatened wildlife populations. As Information Architect Jason Hombergn comments ‘One of the biggest challenges was training the computer software (Machine Learning) to find the seadragons in a photo, which are incredibly well camouflaged in their environment, in diverse photos and lighting conditions.

sea dragon PHOTO CREDIT SHEREE MARRIS SAM 1847B 800x500

In the testing phase, underwater photos were sourced from ‘Super users’ such as passionate diver John Smith from Tasmania, who knows is local Seadragon residents at Bicheno so well, he has names for them. ‘‘It’s great knowing that my enjoyment of photographing seadragons can be used for conversation efforts while helping me learn more about the dynamics of the local dragons in my backyard’.

Once community members submit their Seadragon photos ‘computer vision’ analyses the unique patterns on each seadragon’s face or body and extracts the pixels. A machine learning algorithm suggests possible matches to other photos in the system, and researchers review those matches and assign each seadragon to an individual identity. Think of it like facial recognition for these fairy-tale like fish. 

This technology allows every photo from every diver to become a data point in long-term research and conservation. According to PhD student Chrissy Tustison, the results are promising. ‘The computer algorithm finds seadragon heads with 92% accuracy. It can also classify species with 84% accuracy and factors in different viewpoints with 94% accuracy.

It’s not only seadragons who are going to benefit from this partnership. The advances in machine learning developed for this project has improved WildMe’s machine learning pipeline in the open source Wildbook project, cascading into projects for other species, including giant manta rays, whale sharks, sea turtles, and more.

As sightings of individuals are repeated, the fish can be tracked by a variety of parameters, including year, season, and location. This data, allowing tracking of seadragons, will be used to improve population estimates that underpin conservation and management actions.

The program has been funded for 10 years through the Lowe Family Foundation. Founder Mary “Dewy” White. “I fell in love with these mesmerizing creatures when I first saw them. We hope this project will give scientists the important information they need as well as create many more advocates for the conservation of seadragons and their habitats” she said. 

Now more than ever with people wanting to reconnect with the natural world, coupled with, cheap entry points underwater cameras and waterproof phone cases anyone can be involved and become a citizen scientist. Even a photograph from a fresh specimen washed up on the beach can capture important information. 

All of the data collected will provide valuable scientific data about their lifespans, abundance and other traits will inform management actions and conservation policy for these charismatic fishes and their habitats. 

It’s an inspiring project that showcases the power of passion and the draw of the ocean. Once she casts her spell it draws in people from all walks of life and magic happens. It’s heart-warming, inspiring and one of the many reasons I love our big blue backyard.

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