Smalltooth Sawfish

Xavier Cortada, “Smalltooth sawfish,” 15″ x 22″, digital art, 2015

Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) once ranging from North Carolina to Texas has, essentially, a last toehold in the sandy shoals near the mouth of the river. It is here researchers have been able to locate juveniles. So rare is this fish, that every shred of data is relished. Anyone spotting a small tooth sawfish is asked to report it to a special hotline 352-392-2360.

Revered as an “Earth Monster” by the Aztecs, this olive-green fearsome looking fish can grow up to 25 feet, weigh upwards of 700 pounds, and commands attention with its saw-like rostrum. However, rather than cutting through things, the sawfish uses specialized cells on its rostrum to detect magnetic fluctuations created by electrical waves produced by the muscles of its prey, then digs it out of the sand with its snout, and spears it by swiping its head from side to side. What may appear to be teeth on that long nose are actually specialized denticles, the same hook-like scales that are found all over a shark’s body and give it the texture of sandpaper. However, the sawfish’s rostrum is, in effect, a double edged sword as it has been prized as a valuable souvenir and source for various folk medicines throughout human history. Moreover, like its shark cousins the sawfish is frequently caught for its fins which are used in culinary recipes. Coupled with the destruction of mangrove and estuarine habitats which these creatures rely on as nursery sites for their young, the US population of smalltooth sawfish are now limited to a small range surrounding the southern end of the Florida peninsula, which as was designated as a critical habitat for these animals in 2009. The sawfish’s flat belly facilitates its favorite past-time: taking in the sights of the reef while lying on the seafloor.

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