Ever seen a chainsaw strapped to a pancake? When it comes to the weird and the wonderful, few creatures can compete with the bizarre-looking sawfish. Their flattened noses - or rostrums - are lined with teeth, resembling a chainsaw, they're flat(ish) and can reach a whopping seven metres in length. Yet despite their wholly unique appearance, these elusive creatures are largely unknown by divers. Sawfish have been declining in numbers, making them increasingly rare to find underwater. However, there are still some locations where they can be spotted. If you're heading to Florida, the Bahamas or the Caribbean, luck may be on your side, so here are our top ten sawfish facts to help maximise your chances of a rare encounter.
1. Sawfish Are Rays
While their shape is more similar to a shark than a ray, sawfish belong to the family of rays. Unlike most rays, sawfish have caudal fins (tails), which they use for locomotion, and unlike sharks, they appear somewhat flattened, but not as much as other rays, such as the eagle ray.
2. There Are Five Different Species of Sawfish
Marine biologists have debated the classification of different sawfishes for some time. However, it wasn't until 2013 that a consensus was finally reached. It is now established that there are five living species of sawfish, split across two genera.
The five species are the largetooth sawfish, the smalltooth sawfish, the dwarf sawfish, the green sawfish and the narrow sawfish. The narrow sawfish is in the Anoxypristis genus, while the others fall into the Pristis genus.
3. Sawfish Are Not Sawsharks or Swordfishes
Despite its similar appearance, a sawshark is a different beast altogether. Rarely encountered by humans, sawsharks also have extended rostrums and spend their time in much deeper water.
Swordfishes also have extended appendages protruding from the heads, but these 'swords' lack the teeth of a sawfish's saw and are not flattened.
4. The Sawfish’s Saw
By far the most striking feature of the sawfish is its extended rostrum, or saw. This extension is a part of the skull and is made of cartilage covered in skin. Its two edges each feature a row of rostral teeth, which give the appendage its saw-like appearance.
The saw contains sensory organs, known as the ampullae of Lorenzini, which help the sawfish find its prey. Using these ampullae, sawfish can detect electric impulses, such as those emitted by its prey's heartbeat.
Sawfish are also creative with their use of their saw. They have been known to swipe at fish in open water and, with a different movement, at fish resting on the seabed. They also use their saws to pin prey to the floor to prevent escape.
5. Sawfish Are Among the World's Largest Fish
While they're not quite in the same league as whale sharks, sawfish reach substantial sizes. The smalltooth sawfish, largetooth sawfish and green sawfish can reach six metres in length, with some reports claiming seven-metre-long specimens too. Meanwhile, the dwarf sawfish and narrow sawfish are a little smaller, reaching just over three metres in length.
6. The Sawfish’s Preferred Habitat
While sawfish are found in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, they remain elusive to divers with sightings mainly in the Atlantic region. Specifically, they are mainly found enjoying coastal waters in and around brackish waters and estuaries. They are euryhaline fish, meaning they can adapt to changing water salinity and can venture upriver.
In general, sawfish like to hang out in shallow water, often less than ten metres deep, in areas with a soft bottom, such as sand or mud.
7. Sawfish in Freshwater
Although elusive, the largetooth sawfish enjoys freshwater, with sightings reported in Lake Nicaragua and 830 miles up the Amazon River. Young largetooth sawfish spend their first years hanging out in freshwater, as opposed to the smalltooth, green and dwarf sawfish, which prefer water with a higher salinity.
8. Don’t Believe All Sawfish Stories
Over the years, the bizarre appearance of the sawfish has led to myths of sawfish using their toothed rostrums to saw chunks of flesh from the flanks of whales. Similarly, tales of sawfish sinking ships and cutting people in half have, thankfully, fallen by the wayside in recent years.
9. Sawfish Conservation
Unfortunately, sawfish numbers are in decline, with all five extant species listed as either endangered or critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Over the years, they have been fished for various reasons, including the use of the rostral teeth as spurs in cockfighting.
Despite not being sharks, their fins are also among the most valued in the shark-fin soup trade, and they are also sought after by the Chinese traditional medicine industry.
10. Where to Dive with Sawfish
The Gulf of Mexico is one of the best regions to find sawfish, as there is still a reasonable population of smalltooth sawfish. The Florida Keys, which sweep down into the gulf from the US mainland, is also a good place to start your hunt.
The southern edge of the Gulf of Mexico is separated from the Caribbean Sea by the Yucatan Peninsula, and if lucks on your side, you may also be able to spot sawfish along the Caribbean coastlines of Mexico and Belize.
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