Seadragons and Community-Driven Research

Leafy Seadragon

A brief history of community-driven efforts to learn more about seadragons

In 1996, a coalition of South Australian community organizations and researchers decided to investigate the mysteries surrounding some of their most iconic marine locals- weedy (or common) and leafy seadragons. This project, called Dragon Search, 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. 

Dragon Search initiated the use of citizen or community-driven science to collect data about seadragons, and over the course of its life increased knowledge about how seadragons live, move, and relate to their surroundings. During the first decade of the program, targeted research work was also being done in South Australia (SA) by Rod Connolly, 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 leafy seadragons in those areas did not move far from a small home range. Spurred by this knowledge and the need for more data to inform conservation planning, a number of divers and dive tour operators worked on individual projects tracking seadragons by identifying the unique markings on each fish. In SA in 2013, a more formal community pilot project was developed, and seadragons from that study have now been identified periodically over a 7-year timespan. Changes in their appearances have been recorded over time, and their breeding behavior has also been documented. This body of work based out of South Australia has helped to pave the way for current seadragon research projects.

A public education campaign also ran out of SA 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 in supporting future seadragon safety.

The original Dragon Search program based in southern Australia and the 2013 pilot project undertaken by divers in SA have been extended to a current project, Dragon Search South Australia, located on the iNaturalist citizen science platform. Seadragon enthusiasts can continue to share their images through this platform and contribute to seadragon research and conservation. 

Our project, SeadragonSearch, was sparked by the potential for using new technology to address some challenges of using seadragons’ unique markings to monitor their populations. In the early 2000s, the concept of using artificial intelligence (AI) tools to “fingerprint” individual animals using their unique markings began to gain traction. Successful use of such technology was achieved with various species  through collaboration between university researchers and the non-profit Wild Me in the United States. Through partnering with Wild Me, who has by now established successful versions of their detection software for both terrestrial and marine animals, SeadragonSearch will use AI tools combined with community engagement to contribute to broad-scale and long-term monitoring of wild seadragons over the next decade and across all Australian states where they occur.

Reports compiled by Dragon Search can be accessed through the current Dragon Search South Australia project page. Dragon Search South Australia leaders Janine Baker and Tony Flaherty are core team members of SeadragonSearch. Our core team meets regularly to share photographic data, exchange seadragon research updates, improve outreach and community engagement in seadragon research projects, and collaborate in improving conservation outcomes for seadragon populations across Australia’s southern coast.