While they might be confused with swordfish, the sawfish species is actually related to the ray. Their distinct long, flattened rostrum – which lends the “saw” reference in their moniker – makes them a prized target among international curio collectors.
Both largetooth and smalltooth sawfish have a distinct rostrum that extends from their bodies, much like a snout. Each rostrum is lined with dozens of teeth that are set deeply within tough cartilage. If a sawfish loses a tooth, it does not grow back. Examining the number of teeth on one side of a sawfish’s rostrum helps identify the specific species – the size of the teeth on a largetooth sawfish are much greater than the smalltooth variety. A smalltooth sawfish will also have more teeth than its counterpart.
When hunting, sawfish will stir up the sandy or muddy floors of their ocean water habitat. They will use their rostrum to locate, immobilize and kill bottom-dwelling prey, such as herring and mullet. And while the sawfish is generally a docile species, it will also use its rostrum as a defensive weapon.
Across the globe, sawfish are hunted for their rostrums. Historically, rostrums have been used in religious ceremonies and traditional medicine. Some saw teeth are made into tools, other cultures make an asthma-treating tea from the rostrum itself. Sawfish have been recognized by civilizations for quite a long time – some ancient Aztec swords were made in the design of a sawfish rostrum, and other Oceania and Australian cultures reference sawfish in tribal legends.
Decades of overhunting have negatively impacted wild sawfish populations. Additionally, due to their protruding rostrum, this species can be easily entangled in fishing nets and require careful removal for a healthy release. It is illegal to catch or harm a smalltooth sawfish under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall, images taken at the Georgia Aquarium.