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NATURAL HISTORY

SMALLTOOTH SAWFISH } Pristis pectinata
FAMILY: Pristidae

DESCRIPTION: Smalltooth sawfish have a distinct, saw-like snout called a rostrum, which is edged with pairs of teeth and is used to detect movement and even heartbeats of hidden prey, as well as for digging. Like rays, sawfish have flat heads with mouths located on the underside. Their mid- and tail sections are rounded and resemble the body of a shark — with coloration ranging from olive green and brown above to white, grey, and pale yellow below. Smalltooth sawfish are one of two sawfish species found in U.S. waters and are distinguished by their lack of a lower lobe on their tail fin. They commonly grow to 18 feet in length and may get as long as 25 feet.

HABITAT: Juvenile smalltooth sawfish inhabit the shallow coastal waters of bays, banks, estuaries, and river mouths, particularly shallow mud banks and mangrove forest habitats. Adults are found in the same habitat, but they also range offshore at depths up to 400 feet.

RANGE: Smalltooth sawfish were once prevalent throughout Florida waters and were commonly encountered offshore from Texas to North Carolina. Currently, the species can only be found with any regularity in south Florida waters between the Caloosahatchee River and the Florida Keys.

MIGRATION: This species does not migrate.

BREEDING: Little is known about the reproductive behavior of sawfish. They are believed to be ovoviviparous, meaning that they produce eggs that are hatched within the body. Litter sizes are likely 10 to 20 young. Sawfish are slow to mature and reproduce infrequently, making them very susceptible to overfishing.

LIFE CYCLE: Smalltooth sawfish live for as long as 30 years.

FEEDING: Sawfish often feed by attacking schools of fish, such as mullets and clupeids, by slashing sideways through the school and impaling prey on their rostral teeth. The fish are subsequently scraped off the teeth by rubbing against the ocean floor and then ingested whole. Another feeding technique employed by smalltooth sawfish is to lie motionless waiting for prey to swim by, then springing from the water’s bottom, slashing furiously and stunning their prey. Sawfish can also use their rostrum to dig in the sea floor and uncover hidden fish and crustaceans.

THREATS: Because of their unique anatomy, sawfish have a strong propensity for entanglement in nets. Bycatch, especially in gillnets, has been the primary cause of this species’ decline. The destruction and modification of mangrove forests, which serve as important nursery areas for juvenile sawfish, has also contributed to their dwindling numbers.

POPULATION TREND: Evidence suggests that this species was once common throughout its historic range, which has been dramatically altered and reduced. The total population of smalltooth sawfish is estimated to have declined by 95 percent.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/David Iliff under the Gnu free documentation license