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Temporal range: Eocene–Recent[1]
Sawfish genova.jpg
Longcomb sawfish, Pristis zijsron
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Subclass: Elasmobranchii
Superorder: Batoidea
Order: Rhinopristiformes
Family: Pristidae
Bonaparte, 1838

Anoxypristis White & Moy-Thomas, 1941
Pristis Linck, 1790

Sawfish in Georgia Aquarium, 2006
A large sawfish brought alongside for tagging

Sawfishes, also known as carpenter sharks, are a family of rays characterized by a long, narrow, flattened rostrum, or nose extension, lined with sharp transverse teeth, arranged in a way that resembles a saw. Several species of sawfishes can grow to about 7 m (23 ft).[2][3][4] The family as a whole is largely unknown and little studied. The Pristidae are the only living family within the order Pristiformes, whose name comes from the Ancient Greek: πρίστης prístēs "saw, sawyer".[5]

Sawfishes should not be confused with sawsharks (order Pristiophoriformes), or the extinct sclerorhynchids (order Sclerorhynchiformes) which have a similar appearance.

All species of sawfishes are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the IUCN, and face the threat of extinction as a result of habitat loss and overfishing.[6] Global populations of every species of sawfishes are estimated to have fallen to less than 10% of their historic levels, and they have been lost from at least 80% of their historic range.[7] The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), for example, was once widely distributed, but available data indicate the range of this species has been reduced by about 90%, and population numbers have declined dramatically, perhaps by 95% or more,[8] although they still appear to retain a significant amount of genetic diversity[9]. 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.[10]


A 3.5-ft sawfish rostrum

The sawfish's most distinctive feature is the saw-like rostrum, 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 its flat underside. The mouth is lined with small, dome-shaped teeth for eating small fish and crustaceans, which the fish sometimes swallows 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 give the fish a rough texture. Sawfish are usually light grey or brown; the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata, appears olive green.

Like other elasmobranchs, sawfish lack a swim bladder and use a large, oil-filled liver to control buoyancy. Their skeleton is made of cartilage.

The eyes of the sawfish are underdeveloped due to their muddy habitats. The rostrum is the main sensory device.

Their small intestines contain an internal partition shaped like a corkscrew, called a spiral valve, which increases the surface area available for food absorption.

The smallest sawfish is the dwarf sawfish (P. clavata), which grows to 1.4 m (4.6 ft),[11] 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 about 7 m (23 ft) in length.[2][3][4] One southern sawfish was recorded as weighing 2,455 kg (5,412 lb).[12] Such massive specimens that survive long enough to approach their maximum size and age are believed to have lifespans of about 51 years.[13]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

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. Young smalltooth sawfish (P. pectinata) can have high site fidelity at specific locations within an estuarine nursery area, and this may help when changes occur in freshwater inflow[14]. Some species are known to 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, only visiting the surface occasionally. Juveniles are common in very shallow waters, and adults can be found at depths of 40 m (130 ft) or more.

Sawfishes have declined drastically and few records are recent in several regions. For example, sawfishes were once relatively common in the northeast Atlantic off West Africa, but few recent sightings are reported.[15]


Sawfishes are nocturnal, usually sleeping during the day and hunting at night. Despite their fearsome appearance, 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 reproductive 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 to 13 ft) long and 10 to 12 years old. Their reproduction rates, lower than that of most fish, make these animals especially slow to recover from overfishing.[16]

Females are ovoviviparous,[13] 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. The sheath eventually disintegrates and falls off.

Taxonomy and species[edit]

Extant taxa[edit]

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.[17] 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.[1]
Genus Image Scientific name Common name IUCN status Fish
FAO Comment
Anoxypristis AnoxypristisCuspidataCSIRO.jpg Anoxypristis cuspidata
(Latham, 1794)
Knifetooth sawfish EN IUCN 3 1.svg Endangered[18] [19] 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
Pristis Smalltooths Pristis clavata 2.jpg Pristis clavata
Garman, 1906
Queensland sawfish EN IUCN 3 1.svg Endangered[20] [21] 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).
Pristis pectinata - Georgia Aquarium Jan 2006.jpg Pristis pectinata
Latham, 1794
Smalltooth sawfish CR IUCN 3 1.svg Critically endangered[22] [23] 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 believed to be misidentifications[15]
Sawfish genova.jpg Pristis zijsron
Bleeker, 1851
Narrowsnout sawfish CR IUCN 3 1.svg Critically endangered[24] [25] Also called the longcomb or green sawfish. Found in the Indo-West Pacific where it prefers muddy bays and estuaries
Largetooths Pristis pristis
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Common sawfish CR IUCN 3 1.svg Critically endangered[26] [27] 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
Pristis microdon.jpg Pristis microdon
Latham, 1794
Largetooth sawfish [28] Disputed.[1] Also known as the freshwater or Leichhardt's sawfish. Not to be confused with the large-tooth sawfish, P. perotteti. Typically restricted to coastal regions of the Indo-Pacific, but has sometimes been considered synonymous with P. perotteti, and uncertainty exists as to what species the scientific name P. microdon really belongs, since the original description lacked a type locality
Pristis perotteti.jpg Pristis perotteti
J. P. Müller & Henle, 1841
Large-tooth sawfish [29] Disputed.[1] 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


Sawfish seen from below, at Atlantis Paradise Island, Nassau, Bahamas
Plate etching of a smalltooth sawfish

All species of sawfishes are listed as critically endangered or endangered, and risk extinction, as their populations have declined to less than 10% of historical levels – the result of habitat destruction and overfishing.[30] The smalltooth sawfish (P. 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 the range of this species 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% to perhaps as low as 1% of their historic levels.[8][15]

While sawfishes are accidentally caught as bycatch in fishing nets – due to their easily entangled rostra – they are also exploited for their rostra (prized as a curiosity by some), their fins (eaten as a delicacy by others), and their liver oil (used in folk medicine). The rostrum can reportedly fetch prices of over US$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."[30]

While fins from many shark species are used 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."[31] The fins from the critically endangered sawfishes "are highly favored in Asian markets and are some of the most valuable shark fins."[32] Sawfishes are now protected under the highest protection level of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Appendix I,[10][30] 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. Additionally, A. cuspidata, P. clavata, P. microdon, and P. zijsron are listed as candidates under that act.[33] Since 2007, the import for sale of that of any sawfish species is also prohibited.[30]

While popular in public aquaria, sawfishes are difficult to maintain because of their size. They likely require a variety of habitats, including both marine and fresh water to complete their lifecycles. Consequently, captive breeding has resulted in very little success, so far limited to a single species (P. pectinata)[34] at a single aquarium (Atlantis Paradise Island).[35]

The international trade of sawfish was banned by the CITES convention in June 2007.[36] 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.”[36] 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.[citation needed]

Cultural perception[edit]

The German World War II Kampfabzeichen der Kleinkampfverbände (Battle Badge of Small Combat Units)

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.[16] 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".

1000 Franc CFA Banknote showing a form of sawfish imagery.

A stylized sawfish was chosen by the The Central Bank of the West African States (BCEAO) to appear on coins and banknotes of the CFA currency. This was due to the mythological value representing fecundity and prosperity. The image takes its form from an Akan and Baoule bronze weight used for exchanges in the commercial trade of gold powder.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Faria, V. V.; McDavitt, M. T.; Charvet, P.; Wiley, T. R.; Simpfendorfer, C. A.; Naylor, G. J. P. (2013). "Species delineation and global population structure of Critically Endangered sawfishes (Pristidae)". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 167: 136–164. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2012.00872.x. Retrieved 7 March 2013. 
  2. ^ a b Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2011). "Pristis microdon" in FishBase. February 2011 version.
  3. ^ a b Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2011). "Pristis perotteti" in FishBase. February 2011 version.
  4. ^ a b Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2011). "Pristis pristis" in FishBase. February 2011 version.
  5. ^ πρίστης in Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert (1940) A Greek–English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Jones, Sir Henry Stuart, with the assistance of McKenzie, Roderick. Oxford: Clarendon Press. In the Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University.
  6. ^ "Pristidae". IUCN Red List. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 6 March 2013. 
  7. ^ Dulvy, N.K.; Davidson, L.N.K.; Kyne, P.M.; Simpfendorfer, C.A.; Harrison, L. R.; Carlson, J.K.; Fordham, S.V. (2014). "Ghosts of the coast: global extinction risk and conservation of sawfishes". Aquatic Conservation. doi:10.1002/aqc.2525. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  8. ^ a b "Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata)". NOAA Fisheries, Office of Protected Resources. 27 February 2013. Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  9. ^ Chapman, Demian D.; Simpfendorfer, Colin A.; Wiley, Tonya R.; Poulakis, Gregg R.; Curtis, Caitlin; Tringali, Michael; Carlson, John K.; Feldheim, Kevin A. (2011-11-01). "Genetic Diversity Despite Population Collapse in a Critically Endangered Marine Fish: The Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata)". Journal of Heredity. 102 (6): 643–652. ISSN 0022-1503. doi:10.1093/jhered/esr098. 
  10. ^ a b "CITES Appendices I, II and III". Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Retrieved 7 March 2013. 
  11. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2010). "Pristis clavata" in FishBase. May 2010 version.
  12. ^ R. Aidan Martin. "Big Fish Stories". ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. 
  13. ^ a b Compagno, L.J.V., Cook, S.F. & Fowler, S.L. (2006). "Pristis microdon". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 6 March 2013. 
  14. ^ Poulakis, Gregg R.; Stevens, Philip W.; Timmers, Amy A.; Stafford, Christopher J.; Chapman, Demian D.; Feldheim, Kevin A.; Heupel, Michelle R.; Curtis, Caitlin. "Long-term site fidelity of endangered small-tooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) from different mothers" (PDF). Fishery Bulletin. 114 (4): 461–475. doi:10.7755/fb.114.4.8. 
  15. ^ a b c Adams, W.F., Fowler, S.L., Charvet-Almeida, P., Faria, V., Soto, J. & Furtado, M. (2006). "Pristis pectinata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved March 25, 2010. 
  16. ^ a b Raloff, Janet (2007). Hammered Saws, Science News vol. 172, pp. 90-92.
  17. ^ Froese, Rainer, and Daniel Pauly, eds. (2009). "Pristidae" in FishBase. January 2009 version.
  18. ^ D'Anastasi, B., Simpfendorfer, C. & van Herwerden, L. (2013). "Anoxypristis cuspidata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  19. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Anoxypristis cuspidata" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  20. ^ Kyne, P.M., Rigby, C. & Simpfendorfer, C. (2013). "Pristis clavata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  21. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Pristis clavata" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  22. ^ Carlson, J., Wiley, T. & Smith, K. (2013). "Pristis pectinata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  23. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Pristis pectinata" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  24. ^ Simpfendorfer, C. (2013). "Pristis zijsron". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  25. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Pristis zijsron" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  26. ^ Kyne, P.M., Carlson, J. & Smith, K. (2013). "Pristis pristis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 August 2013. 
  27. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Pristis pristis" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  28. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Pristis microdon" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  29. ^ Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2013). "Pristis perotteti" in FishBase. March 2013 version.
  30. ^ a b c d Black, Richard (June 11, 2007). "Sawfish protection acquires teeth". BBC News. 
  31. ^ Vannuccini, S. 1999. Shark utilization, marketing and trade. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper. No. 389. Rome, FAO. Retrieved March 17, 2009.
  32. ^ "Recovery Plan for Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata)" (PDF). National Marine Fisheries Service. 2009. Retrieved March 18, 2009. 
  33. ^ "Candidate and Proposed Species Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)". NOAA Fisheries. Retrieved 8 March 2013. 
  34. ^ Smith, M., D. Warmolts, D. Thoney, & R. Hueter (2004). The Elasmobranch Husbandry Manual: Captive Care of Sharks, Rays and their Relatives.
  35. ^ Sawfish: Treaties tabled on 12 March and 4 June 2008. Cairns Marine
  36. ^ a b Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (PDF). The Hague: Fourteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties. 3–15 June 2007. pp. CoP14 Prop. 17. 
  37. ^ Robillard, M; Séret, B (January 2007). "Cultural importance and decline of sawfish (Pristidae) populations in West Africa" (PDF). Cybium, International Journal of Ichthyology: 23–30. Retrieved 13 November 2016. 

External links[edit]