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What is a Sawfish?

Anne Kostuchik
Anne Kostuchik

The sawfish, a member of the ray family, is characterized by its long, flat, toothy snout — called a rostrum — which resembles a saw. In the western portion of the Atlantic Ocean, there are two varieties: smalltooth and largetooth. It belongs to the subclass elasmobranchii, a group of fishes including sharks and skates that have skeletons composed of cartilage instead of bone. Like a stingray, its gills are located on its flat underside, along with its mouth and nostrils.

In 2010, seven species of sawfish were recognized in the world. Found in shallow coastal waters in tropical and subtropical areas, it adapts equally well to fresh and salt water. It is a member of the family Pristidae, from the Greek word pristēs, meaning "saw." As a result of residing in murky waters, its eyesight never fully developed. Its rostrum evolved heightened senses to aid in catching food and providing protection.

Coastal development has dramatically reduced the number of sawfish.
Coastal development has dramatically reduced the number of sawfish.

Food is caught by hovering above the floor bed, where it hones in on its prey. When the sawfish detects morsels like snails and shrimp, it digs them up with the rostrum. It also hunts by moving the blade from side to side, slicing through schools of small fish. The fish are first stunned then devoured; during the process, some are impaled on the saw teeth.

Not known to be aggressive, if it feels threatened, the sawfish will utilize the rostrum in defense. Throughout history, the saw has been used in various cultures for weapons, decoration, and in tool-making. Whole saws were sometimes used as offerings in religious ceremonies.

Smalltooth sawfish are ovoviviparous, meaning the mother holds the eggs inside until she is ready to give birth to live fish, called pups. This process produces fewer babies, about eight on average, which grow at a slower rate and take longer to mature. This lower reproductive rate contributed to making the species vulnerable to overfishing. Other factors include expansive coastal development and environmental pollution, which drastically affected the areas in which young fish would hide.

For these reasons, on 1 May 2003, the U.S. granted federal protection to smalltooth sawfish under the Endangered Species Act. Largetooth sawfish were declared an endangered species in May 2010, making it illegal to harm, kill, trade, or possess any and all parts of a sawfish in the U.S. The 2011 World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species included all seven sawfish species.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a sawfish?

A sawfish is a ray species belonging to the family Pristidae, characterized by a long, flat snout edged with teeth, resembling a saw. This unique rostrum is used for defense and to detect and incapacitate prey. Sawfish are found in shallow coastal waters and estuaries, and despite their shark-like appearance, they are closely related to rays.

How does a sawfish use its saw-like snout?

The sawfish's saw, or rostrum, is lined with motion-sensing pores that allow it to detect movements of prey in murky waters. It then uses swift, side-to-side swipes of the saw to stun or kill prey before consuming it. This specialized snout also helps in digging and unearthing crustaceans from the ocean floor.

Are sawfish endangered?

Yes, sawfish are critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their populations have declined dramatically due to habitat loss, fishing bycatch, and the demand for their rostra as curios. Conservation efforts are underway to protect their habitats and regulate fishing practices to prevent further decline.

What do sawfish eat?

Sawfish are carnivorous and primarily feed on fish, crustaceans, and mollusks. Their diet consists of small schooling fish, which they may herd using their rostrum, and bottom-dwelling species like shrimp and crabs, which they unearth from the sediment. Their unique saw is a highly effective tool for both hunting and foraging.

Where can sawfish be found?

Sawfish were once widespread across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, but their range has significantly contracted. They are now primarily found in the coastal waters and estuaries of tropical and subtropical regions, with notable populations in places like northern Australia, the Gulf of Mexico, and off the coast of Florida.

How do sawfish reproduce?

Sawfish are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young after the embryos develop inside the mother's body. Females give birth to relatively small litters of developed pups, which are born with a soft, pliable rostrum to prevent injury during birth. The rostrum hardens shortly after birth, preparing the young sawfish for survival.

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    • Coastal development has dramatically reduced the number of sawfish.
      By: carballo
      Coastal development has dramatically reduced the number of sawfish.