In 1996, a coalition of South Australian community organizations and researchers decided to investigate the mysteries surrounding some of their most iconic marine locals- common and leafy seadragons. This original DragonSearch project grew out of a mission to better understand seadragons’ lives, inviting “anyone who visits the beach or swims in the sea” to contribute to scientific research by sharing information about seadragon sightings through survey forms. The current version of DragonSearch is built upon the foundation of this original initiative.
The original DragonSearch project increased knowledge about how seadragons live, move, and relate to their surroundings, recording data that included numbers of individuals sighted by time and location, seadragon gender and brooding status, and habitat details. A public education campaign also ran over several years, during which a Code of Conduct for Diving with Seadragons was developed jointly by government and the community. That code has been updated in 2020, and will be a key resource ensuring seadragon safety for current community science projects.
During the first decade of the DragonSearch community program, targeted research work was also being done in South Australia (SA) by Rod Connelly, who identified and radio-tracked individual seadragons. Connolly’s pioneering research at West Island in SA confirmed what divers had suspected for many years- that seadragons do not move far from a specific home range. Over two decades, a number of divers and dive tour operators working on individual projects tracked seadragons by identifying the unique markings on each fish. In SA in 2013, a more formal community project was developed. Some of those animals have now been identified periodically over a 7-year timespan, changes in their appearances have been recorded over time, and their breeding behavior has been documented. A community report on these findings is in preparation.
The original DragonSearch accepted and curated submissions from the community until 2002, and the original coalition published multiple reports about the data collected over the years that followed.
The current reincarnation of DragonSearch was sparked by the potential for using new technology to address the ongoing challenges of monitoring marine species. In the early 2000’s, the concept of using artificial intelligence to “fingerprint” individual fish through their unique markings began to gain traction. The possibilities for successfully using such technology with various species was explored through collaboration between university researchers and the non-profit Wild Me in the United States. Through working with Wild Me, who has now established several successful versions of detection software for both land and sea animals, the current revival of DragonSearch will use this innovative tool kit to track wild seadragons and monitor how their populations may be changing.
Like many of the creatures in our changing oceans, Dragonsearch has adapted and reinvented itself in a changing world. With a strong historical foundation, DragonSearch will continue to advance scientific knowledge about Australia’s most captivating ambassadors for marine conservation.