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What is a Sawfish?

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  • Written By: Anne Kostuchik
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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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.

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.

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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.

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