A weedy seadragon in the wild. Photo: SeadragonSearch

SeadragonSearch: Using Community Science to Conserve Australia’s Charismatic Animals

Community-driven research initiative uses artificial intelligence tools to identify seadragons from uploaded photos; resulting data will inform conservation policy

A community-driven research initiative that will answer many questions about the mysterious seadragon was launched on Oct. 1 by the Western Australian Museum (Perth) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

SeadragonSearch will use artificial intelligence tools to identify individual dragons from photos taken by community members and uploaded to the SeadragonSearch website. The resulting data about their lifespans and other traits will inform conservation policy for these charismatic fishes and their habitats.

Seadragons are marine fishes found only in Australian waters and are part of the same family as seahorses and pipefishes. There are three known species of seadragons: the common, leafy, and recently discovered ruby seadragon. They are popular with ocean enthusiasts worldwide, but remain relatively mysterious to scientists, with many questions about their lives still unanswered.

“Seadragons live in shallow algal habitats, which are particularly vulnerable to climate change” said Greg Rouse, one of the leaders of the SeadragonSearch Project and a marine biologist at Scripps Oceanography.

“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,” he said.

A leafy seadragon in the wild with a diver in the background.
A leafy seadragon in the wild. Photo: SeadragonSearch

Seadragon habitat loss is concerning for several reasons, including their 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.

“Without more information, we can’t accurately estimate how seriously seadragons are threatened by human impacts,” said Nerida Wilson, from the Western Australian Museum and University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences.

“This project invites people to share their photographs of seadragons, even beach-washed ones, to help improve data that is important to safeguarding the future of seadragons. People-power is critical to keep conservation efforts in focus, and we are fortunate that seadragons have such a strong community of support behind them,” she said. “Seadragons often live in areas of high biodiversity, so helping them helps other marine life, too.”

Once community members submit their photographs of seadragons – whether underwater, washed up on the beach, or in aquaria – computer vision is used to analyze the unique patterns on each seadragon’s face or body. A machine learning algorithm suggests possible matches to other photos in the system, and researchers review those matches and assign each dragon to an individual identity. As sightings of individuals are repeated, the fish can be tracked by a variety of parameters, including year, season, and location.

“I fell in love with these mesmerizing creatures when I first saw them,” said Mary “Dewy” White, cofounder of the Lowe Family Foundation, which is supporting the research.

“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.

SeadragonSearch is partnering with the non-profit organization Wild Me, an Oregon-based software developer specializing in the use of artificial intelligence tools to collect and analyze data from threatened wildlife populations. Wild Me has implemented deep learning models in the detection pipeline for seadragons, and their software engineers currently have innovative new matching algorithms in development. More information about their work can be found at wildme.org.

SeadragonSearch is also working with a national network of partners across Australia, including the University of Technology, Sydney, the Victorian National Parks Association, The Hutchins School in Tasmania, and independent marine ecologists and educators. A PhD student, Chrissy Tustison, will be at the University of Western Australia in Perth working to develop the project over the next few years.

The SeadragonSearch website is located at www.seadragonsearch.org. With the support of Ms. White, the project plans to run for at least 10 years in order to make a significant contribution to seadragon knowledge and conservation policy.

Rouse is a renowned seadragon expert who helped ​Birch Aquarium at Scripps develop Seadragons & Seahorses​, a permanent exhibition that brings seadragon conservation to the forefront. The exhibition opened in 2019 and features one of the world’s largest seadragon habitats.

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.

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