Sawfishes, also known as carpenter sharks, are a family of rays that are characterized by a long, narrow, flattened rostrum, or nose extension, that is lined with sharp transverse teeth, arranged so as to resemble a saw. Several species of sawfish can grow to approximately 7 metres or 23 feet. The family as a whole is largely unknown and little studied. This family, Pristidae, is the only living family within the order Pristiformes, whose name comes from the Ancient Greek: πρίστης prístēs “saw, sawyer”.
All species of sawfish are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and face the threat of extinction as a result of habitat loss and overfishing. Global populations of every species of sawfish are estimated to have fallen to less than 10% of their historic levels. The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), for example, was once widely distributed, but available data indicate that the range of this species' distribution has been reduced by about 90%, and that the population numbers have declined dramatically, perhaps by 95% or more. International commerce of sawfishes has been banned globally since 2007, with the only exception being for the provision of live Pristis microdon to appropriate public aquaria for primarily conservation purposes.
The sawfish's most distinctive feature is the saw-like rostrum. The rostrum is covered with electrosensitive pores that allow the sawfish to detect slight movements of prey hiding in the muddy sea floor. The rostrum also serves as a digging tool to unearth buried crustaceans. Should suitable prey try to swim past, the normally lethargic sawfish springs from the bottom and slashes at it with its saw. This generally stuns or impales the prey sufficiently for the sawfish to devour it. Sawfish also defend themselves with their rostrum against intruding divers and predators such as sharks. The "teeth" protruding from the rostrum are not real teeth, but modified tooth-like structures called denticles.
The body and head of a sawfish are flat, and they spend most of their time lying on the sea floor. Like rays, a sawfish's mouth and nostrils are on their flat undersides. The mouth is lined with small, dome-shaped teeth for eating small fish and crustaceans; sometimes the fish swallows them whole. Sawfish breathe with two spiracles just behind the eyes that draw water to the gills. The skin is covered with tiny dermal denticles that gives the fish a rough texture. Sawfish are usually light grey or brown; the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata, appears olive green.
The eyes of the sawfish are undeveloped due to their muddy habitat. The rostrum is the main sensory device.
The smallest sawfish is the dwarf sawfish (P. clavata), which grows to 1.4 metres (4.6 ft), much smaller than the others. The largest species seem to be the large-tooth sawfish (P. microdon), the Leichhardt's sawfish (P. perotteti), and the common sawfish (P. pristis), which can all reach approximately 7 m (23 ft) in length. One southern sawfish was recorded as weighing 2,455 kg (5,412 lb). Such massive specimens that survive long enough to approach their maximum size and age are believed to have lifespans of about 51 years.
Distribution and habitat
Sawfishes are marine, euryhaline (moving between freshwater and saltwater) or marginal (brackish water) species, and are widely distributed across tropical and warm temperate nearshore ocean waters in the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. They inhabit inshore coastal areas such as coastal lagoons, estuarine environments and the lower, brackish river deltas. Some species are known to frequently penetrate far into rivers and major lakes such as Lake Nicaragua.
Though few details of their ecology are precisely known, sawfishes tend to prefer shallow, muddy brackish water, spending most of their time on or near the seabed, visiting the surface occasionally. Juveniles are common in very shallow waters, but adults can be found at depths of 40 m (130 ft) or more.
They have declined drastically and there are few recent records in several regions. For example, sawfishes were once relatively common in the northeast Atlantic off West Africa, but there are few recent records.
Sawfish are nocturnal, usually sleeping during the day and hunting at night. Despite fearsome appearances, they do not attack people unless provoked or surprised. The small-tooth sawfish is well known by fishermen as a prize game fish because of the fight it puts up once hooked.
Little is known about the reproduction habits of the sawfish. They are estimated to mate once every two years, with an average litter of around eight. They mature very slowly: it is estimated that the larger species do not reach sexual maturity until they are 3.5 to 4 m (11.5 to 13 ft) long and 10 to 12 years old. Their reproduction rates, lower than that of most fish, makes these animals especially slow to recover from overfishing.
Females are ovoviviparous, bearing live pups, whose rostral blades are soft and flexible during embryonic development, with teeth that are enclosed by a sheath – so as to protect the mother during the birthing process – which eventually disintegrates and falls off.
Taxonomy and species
The taxonomy of the sawfish family Pristidae has been described as chaotic, with uncertainty as to the true number of valid species. It contains two genera grouped by similar visual characteristics. The genus Anoxypristis contains one species (A. cuspidata) and the genus Pristis contains from four to six species. Pristis has been divided into two groups, commonly referred to as smalltooths and largetooths.
- Smalltooths: The Pristis pectinata species complex (P. clavata, P. pectinata and P. zijsron)
- Largetooths: the Pristis pristis species complex (P. microdon, P. perotteti and P. pristis) is in need of in-depth taxonomic review. It is possible, for example, that P. microdon and P. perotteti may not be distinct species, but may rather be subspecies, or perhaps geographically distinct subpopulations of a single circumtropical species, as is asserted by Faria, McDavitt et al. (2013).
|Genus||Image||Scientific name||Common name||IUCN status||Fish
|Knifetooth sawfish||Endangered||||Also known as the narrow or pointed sawfish. Lives in muddy areas of the Indo-West Pacific. Appears grey. Has been included in the genus Pristis, but has a narrower rostral saw with numerous teeth on the distal part and no teeth in the quarter nearest the head.|
|Queensland sawfish||Endangered||||Also known as the dwarf sawfish. Inhabits muddy bays and estuaries along the northern coast of Australia. Relatively small, reaching only around 1.4 m (4.6 ft).|
|Smalltooth sawfish||Critically endangered||||Also known as the wide sawfish. Appears green or bluish-grey. Restricted to coastal parts of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Mediterranean. Reports from elsewhere are believed to be misidentifications.|
|Narrowsnout sawfish||Critically endangered||||Also called the longcomb or green sawfish. Found in the Indo-West Pacific. Prefers muddy bays and estuaries.|
|Common sawfish||Critically endangered||||Lives in the coastal parts of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic, Mediterranean, eastern Pacific and in northern Australia. As suggested by its name, once plentiful, but has declined drastically along with the other sawfishes.|
|Largetooth sawfish||||Disputed. Not to be confused with the large-tooth sawfish, P. perotteti. Also known as the freshwater or Leichhardt's sawfish . Typically restricted to coastal regions of the Indo-Pacific, but has sometimes been considered synonymous with P. perotteti, and uncertainty exists over what species the scientific name P. microdon really belongs to, since the original description lacked a type locality.|
J. P. Müller & Henle, 1841
|Large-tooth sawfish||||Disputed. Typically restricted to coastal parts of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic and east Pacific, but with records far inland (e.g., Santarém and Lake Nicaragua). See P. microdon.|
All species of sawfish are listed as critically endangered, and risk extinction, as their populations have declined to less than 10% of historical levels – the result of habitat destruction and overfishing. The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), for example, was once widely distributed in parts of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea and Indo-Pacific. Available data indicate that the range of this species' distribution has been reduced by about 90%. As a result, surviving local subpopulations have become severely fragmented. Population numbers of this species are estimated at less than 5-percent – perhaps as low as one percent – of their historic levels.
While sawfishes are accidentally caught as bycatch in fishing nets – due to their easily entangled rostrum – they are also exploited for their rostrum (prized as a curiosity by some), their fins (eaten as a delicacy by others), and their liver oil (used in folk medicine). Their rostrum can reportedly fetch prices of over USD $1,000 (£500) apiece in some markets. While arguing for a global ban on international commerce in 2007, a representative from the National Museums of Kenya stated, "Only the meat is consumed locally; and artisanal fishermen can retire after catching one sawfish due to the high value of a single rostrum, up to $1,450."
While fins from many shark species are utilized in the trade, certain shark species have been identified over the centuries as supplying the tastiest and most succulent fins. The shark-like rays (the sawfishes and shovelnose rays) supply the highest quality fin. As observed by one of the leading treatises on shark trade, "The ... fins ... from the white-spotted guitarfish [Rhynchobatus spp.] are considered to be most valuable. The preferred shark species for fins are tiger, mako, sawfish, sandbar, bull, hammerhead, blacktip, porbeagle, thresher and blue shark." The fins from the critically endangered sawfishes "are highly favored in Asian markets and are some of the most valuable shark fins." Sawfishes are now protected under the highest protection level of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Appendix I, but given the great volume of the shark fin trade, and that detached shark fins are difficult to identify, it is unlikely that CITES protection will prevent sawfish fins from entering the trade.
Capturing a sawfish is illegal in certain countries like the United States and Australia. The sale of smalltooth sawfish rostra is prohibited in the United States under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Additionally, A. cuspidata, P. clavata, P. microdon, and P. zijsron are listed as candidates under the ESA. Since 2007, the import for sale of that of any sawfish species is also prohibited.
While popular in public aquaria, sawfishes are difficult to maintain because of their size. They likely require a variety of habitats, including both seawater and freshwater to complete their life cycle. Consequently, captive breeding has resulted in very little success, so far limited to a single species (P. pectinata) at a single aquarium (Atlantis Paradise Island).
The international trade of sawfish was banned by the CITES convention in June 2007. At the 14th CITES Conference the Australian delegation proposed an annotation to all species from the family Pristidae to Appendix I. The annotation was supported by the required two-thirds majority, and allowed P. microdon to be treated as Appendix II “for the exclusive purpose of allowing international trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable aquaria for primarily conservation purposes.” The annotation was accepted on the basis that Australian populations of P. microdon are robust relative to other populations in the species' range; and that the capture of individuals for aquaria is likely to be detrimental to the population in any other country than Australia. All trade must be accompanied by an agreement between the exporter, importer and the Australian CITES Management Authority ensuring that the receiving aquarium has the capacity to house and care for the animal and that display is accompanied by comprehensive educational material. Since the implementation of the annotation, a sawfish research association has been established in northern Australia to facilitate accelerated research effort in P. microdon and other euryhaline elasmobranchs in rivers that drain to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Sawfish are a powerful symbol in many cultures. The Aztecs revered sawfish as an "earth monster". Its rostrum is used by some Asian shamans for exorcisms and other ceremonies to repel demons and disease, which has contributed to its decline. The sawfish also notably served as the emblem of the German submarine U-96 (1940), known for its portrayal in Das Boot, and was later the symbol of the 9th U-Boat Flotilla. The German World War II Kampfabzeichen der Kleinkampfverbände (Battle Badge of Small Combat Units) depicted a sawfish. These units used midget submarines, manned torpedoes, and explosive boats.
In cartoons and humorous popular culture, the sawfish—particularly its nose—has been employed as a sort of living tool. Examples of this can be found in Vicke Viking and Fighting Fantasy volume "Demons of the Deep".
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pristidae.|
- Last Chance for Sawfish? Scientific American, 2 July 2013.
- Ichthyology: Sawfish University of Florida, Museum of Natural History.
- Unique Australian Animals - Sawfish
- The Ocean Conservancy: Sawfish
- Fisheries Western Australia - Sawfish Fact Sheet