Although they resemble sharks and reside in our Shark Alley exhibit, sawfish are rays. They are members of the elasmobranch subclass, which includes sharks, skates and rays. Their name comes from their iconic rostrum, which is equipped with teeth and resembles a saw. Sharks were the talk of the town last week with Shark Week, but their relatives need some love, too!
There are five species of sawfish: the largetooth sawfish, the smalltooth sawfish, the green sawfish, the dwarf sawfish and the narrow sawfish. The species can be differentiated by the shape, number, and distribution of rostral teeth, the presence or absence of a lower lobe to the caudal fin and the location of the first dorsal fin.
Sawfish were once common in many coastal tropical waters, but they are currently the most imperiled group of sharks and rays. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists two species as endangered and three species as critically endangered, and all five are listed under the United States Endangered Species Act. They have suffered significant population declines throughout their geographic range.
Of the five species, only two have been encountered in North American waters, the smalltooth and the largetooth. There are usually anywhere from 20 to 32 teeth on the rostrum of the smalltooth sawfish, while the largetooth’s rostrum has between 14 and 24.
Although depleted, there are signs that smalltooth sawfish are slowly recovering, having once been restricted to a very small range.
Like sharks, sawfish are vital members of the oceanic ecosystem food chain, regulating populations by feeding on small fish and crustaceans.
Stay tuned for International Sawfish Day on October 17 to learn more about these endangered rays!