American Oceans

Sawshark (Pristiophoridae)

the belly of a sawfish

Sawsharks are a unique group of fish belonging to the order Pristiophoriformes and the family Pristiophoridae, among the diverse class of Chondrichthyes, which includes sharks and rays. These intriguing creatures are named for their distinctive saw-like rostrums, which they use in both hunting and self-defense. Sawsharks are often confused with sawfishes, which are a separate group of cartilaginous fishes; however, the two groups possess some significant differences, such as placement of gill slits and the presence of barbels in sawsharks.

There are currently at least ten recognized species of sawsharks belonging to two different genera. These fascinating creatures are found in various oceans around the world, primarily inhabiting the deeper parts of the continental shelf. Sawsharks exhibit fascinating feeding techniques and behaviors that make them stand out in the Chondrichthyes class, making them intriguing subjects for studies and conservation efforts.

Species and Distribution

a sawshark up close

The sawshark family, known as Pristiophoridae, consists of several unique species that are distributed across various regions in the world. In this section, we will briefly explore some of the notable species along with their distribution patterns.

The longnose sawshark or Pristiophorus cirratus is commonly found in the waters around southern Australia, where it shares its habitat with the common sawshark or Pristiophorus nudipinnis. Both species are known to occur at shallow and deeper depths, and their distribution range extends throughout southern Australia.

Pristiophorus delicatus is another species, known as the tropical sawshark, with its presence mainly in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, the Japanese sawshark or Pristiophorus japonicus inhabits the northwestern Pacific Ocean, specifically near Japan.

A rather distinctive species, the African dwarf sawshark or Pristiophorus nancyae, can be found in southern Africa. This species is known for its distinct features compared to other members of the Pristiophoridae family.

Pristiophorus lanae is a relatively new species discovered in the western North Pacific, specifically around the Philippine Islands. Unlike other species, little is known about its distribution and habitat preferences.

The Bahamas sawshark or Pristiophorus schroederi has its distribution focused in the waters around the Bahamas. This species is unique to the region and not found in other parts of the world.

Lastly, the Pliotrema genus houses the six-gilled sawshark, known as Pliotrema warreni, which is mainly distributed around South Africa.

Physical Characteristics

a sawshark deep underwater

Sawsharks are a unique group of sharks known for their elongated, saw-like rostrum lined with sharp teeth. Their rostrum, or snout, is covered in electrosensory ampullae of Lorenzini, which enables them to detect prey by picking up the electrical signals emitted by other creatures in the water. Alongside their rostrum, they possess a pair of sensory barbels that aid in locating prey by detecting vibrations in the water.

The teeth of a sawshark appear in alternating sizes, with large, sharp teeth followed by smaller teeth. This pattern aids the sharks in effectively capturing and dismembering their prey. In addition to their rostrum teeth, sawsharks also possess oral teeth that aid in consuming food.

Sawsharks have two dorsal fins that are comparable in size and positioned relatively close to each other. Another notable feature of these sharks is the presence of five to six gill slits on each side of their head. The gills are responsible for extracting oxygen from the water, allowing the sawshark to breathe.

In terms of size, sawsharks vary depending on the species. For example, the common sawshark (Pristiophorus cirratus) can grow up to 1.2 meters in length. However, other species, such as the longnose sawshark (Pristiophorus scolopax), can reach lengths of 1.37 meters.

The color and overall description of a sawshark’s body are characterized by a dorsal side that ranges from light to dark brown, often featuring spots or bands. These markings help the sawshark blend effortlessly into its environment, providing effective camouflage against predators and prey alike. The ventral side, or underside, of a sawshark is typically lighter in color, usually exhibiting a creamy white hue.

Behavior and Reproduction

saw sharks in the bahamas

Sawsharks exhibit intriguing behaviors and reproductive strategies that make them unique among elasmobranchs. Their diet mainly consists of prey such as crustaceans, squid, and small fish, which they capture using their distinctive rostrum, lined with sharp teeth, to incapacitate or kill the prey. While there is no current evidence that sawsharks use their rostra to stir up sediment, it does play a vital role in detecting and hunting prey.

A noteworthy feature of sawsharks is their electroreceptors, known as Ampullae of Lorenzini, which help them sense the electric fields emitted by living organisms. This ability enables them to hunt in low-visibility conditions or locate buried prey in the substrate. Sawsharks are adaptive to different water temperatures, making them diverse inhabitants of the ocean, ranging from the shallow coastal regions to depths of up to 1,000 meters.

In terms of reproduction, sawsharks give birth to live offspring like many other elasmobranchs. Their reproductive mode could be either ovoviviparous or viviparous, depending on species. The gestation period remains unclear, but they can bear multiple pups at a time. Recent studies also suggest that sawsharks exhibit multiple paternity and instances of hybridization in their reproduction, shedding light on their complex reproductive biology.

The life cycle of sawsharks starts as pups, during which they are more vulnerable to predation. However, as they grow, their rostra become more developed, enhancing their ability to hunt and survive in their environment. Although the exact lifespan of sawsharks remains unknown, it’s plausible that they have a lifespan similar to other elasmobranchs. The population dynamics of sawsharks are not well-documented, but conservation efforts are ongoing to ensure their survival in a rapidly changing ocean ecosystem.

Conservation Status and Threats

a sawfish swimming underwater

Sawsharks are marine species that face numerous challenges in today’s world. Their conservation status is a growing concern among scientists and environmentalists due to various factors such as habitat loss, human interaction, and bycatch.

According to the IUCN Red List, several sawshark species are classified as threatened or endangered. This implies that they are at risk of extinction if proper conservation measures are not put into place. The main threats to these species include:

  • Human interaction: Sawsharks often fall victim to fisheries as bycatch, which means they are unintentionally caught while fishermen target other species. Additionally, their unique features, such as the saw-like rostrum, make them a target for the exotic wildlife trade.

  • Habitat loss: Coastal development, pollution, and other human activities contribute to the deterioration of sawshark habitats, which in turn affects their ability to feed and reproduce.

  • Predators: Sawsharks also face threats from natural predators such as larger sharks, marine mammals, and even some species of large fish.

It is important to note that sawsharks do not pose a significant threat to humans. They are generally not regarded as dangerous to people, and their elusive nature makes encounters rare.

Taking action to protect these threatened species is essential for maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems. For this reason, various efforts have been undertaken to ensure their survival:

  • Research: Scientists are constantly conducting studies to better understand the biology, ecology, and behavior of sawsharks. This knowledge helps inform conservation efforts and develop effective management strategies for their populations.

  • Mitigation: By working to reduce the impact of human activities on sawshark habitats and minimizing bycatch in fisheries, it is possible to alleviate some of the pressures these species face.

  • Legislation and protection: Governments and international organizations are increasingly implementing laws and regulations to protect sawsharks from overfishing and habitat destruction.

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