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Most Commonly Asked Questions

Sawfish Basics

smalltooth sawfish

What is a sawfish?

The common name sawfish refers to any member of the family Pristidae (the sawfishes). Despite their shark-like form and manner of swimming, they are rays (batoids). These large to huge-sized rays are characterized as having an elongate blade-like snout (rostrum or saw) that has laterally placed tooth-like denticles (rostral teeth) set into sockets. Sawfishes inhabit all coastal tropical and subtropical waters, including estuaries and river systems.

How many species of sawfishes are there?

There are seven recognized species living worldwide today with some species that appear very similar to each other. However, this group of elasmobranchs is currently under taxonomic review, and the total number of species may decrease in the near future. The sawfishes are represented by the genera Pristis and Anoxypristis.


What is an "elasmobranch"?

Scientists used the term elasmobranch to refer to members of the subclass Elasmobranchii, comprised of the living sharks, skates, and rays, along with extinct related fishes. The term elasmobranch is derived from the Greek term elasmos, meaning 'metal plate', and branchia, Greek for 'gills'. Elasmobranchs have cartilaginous skeletons and between five and seven gill openings in common.


Are sawfishes related to sharks and rays?

Yes, in fact sawfishes are considered to be a type of ray (batoid).


How long have sawfishes existed?

Sawfishes evolved from extinct primitive sharks. A number of families of sawfishes, exhibiting a wide array of body modifications, once swam in primitive seas worldwide. From these diverse sawfish families arose the modern sawfish family Pristidae. Many species within the family Pristidae have since died out, and are now represented only in the fossil record, dating as far back as the Eocene Period, 56 million years ago.

How large can sawfishes grow?

Sawfishes are some of the largest rays living today. They commonly reach 16.4 feet (5.0 meters) in length, attaining a maximum length of 24 feet (7.3 meters).


Where (in the world) do sawfishes live?

Sawfishes inhabit coastal tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, including estuaries and river systems as well as the oceans.

Do sawfishes live in waters off the coast of the U.S.?

At one time, the smalltooth sawfish could be found along the southeast coast of the U.S., south into the Gulf of Mexico. However, due to range reduction, the smalltooth sawfish now is only found off the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Florida. The other species of sawfish found in U.S. waters is the largetooth sawfish which is limited to the Gulf of Mexico.

Why do sawfishes have that remarkable tooth-studded snout?

The rostrum, often referred to as the "saw", is used during feeding and for defense. The saw is slashed in a side-to-side motion to dislodge invertebrates from the substrate and to stun schooling fishes. In addition, the sawfish can use its saw in defense against large predators such as sharks.

shark dish

Are sawfishes edible?

All sawfishes are edible, but most people do not eat them. Sawfishes can be utilized as meat for human consumption and their fins can be made into Asian 'shark fin' soup. In addition, the eggs, liver oil, and bile of sawfishes can be used in Chinese traditional medicine. Their rostra may be used in traditional medicine, as religious offerings, and sold as curios.

smalltooth sawfish

Do sawfishes present a threat to humans?

Sawfishes are harmless to humans if left undisturbed. Humans are too large to be viewed as potential prey. Care must be taken when handling or approaching a sawfish of any size, as they may defend themselves when they feel threatened, using their rostrum to strike from side-to-side with considerable force.

Answers by:
Jason Seitz