Left image: Underwater photograph of a tagged adult smallooth sawfish swimming in deepwater.  Right image:Juvenile smalltooth sawfish swimming over seagrass in an estuary.

Protected Sawfish

Sawfishes, like sharks, skates and rays, belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, whose skeletons have no bones and are instead made of cartilage.  Sawfishes are actually modified rays with a shark-like body and gills on their undersides.  Sawfishes get their name from their distinct saw-like snouts (rostra) that are lined with teeth.  Sawfishes use their rostra to locate, stun, and kill their prey.  Their diets include mostly fish but some species also eat worms, crustaceans (shrimp and crabs), snails, or even squid-like cuttlefish. 

Sawfishes are generally long lived and late maturing.  They are ovoviviparous, meaning the mother holds the eggs inside of her until the young are ready to be born.  Other life history characteristics (e.g. age at maturity and maximum age) vary by species. 

Sawfishes live in shallow coastal and estuarine habitats, although some species may also use rivers or other freshwater environments.  Sawfishes prefer muddy or sandy bottoms.

There are five known species of sawfish.  It is difficult to tell the difference between the various species because they look very similar.  Species can be identified by: (1) counting the number of teeth on the snout or rostrum, (2) looking at the size and shape of the rostrum, (3) checking the location of the dorsal fin in relation to the pectoral fins, or (4) looking at the shape of the lower lobe of the tail (caudal fin).

Although all five species of sawfish are listed under the Endangered Species Act, only the largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) and the U.S. Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) have been found in U.S. waters.  While the smalltooth sawfish is still found, mostly in southwest Florida, the largetooth sawfish hasn’t been observed in over 50 years.