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Species Name:      Pristis pectinata
Common Name:             Smalltooth Sawfish



Kingdom Phylum/Division: Class: Order: Family: Genus:
Animalia Chordata Chondrichthyes Pristiformes Pristidae Pristis

Ventral view of a smalltooth sawfish, Pristis pectinata. Photo courtesy A. Murch,

Pristis pectinata resting on the bottom in a
public aquarium. Photo courtesy A. Murch,

Species Name:
Pristis pectinata Latham, 1794

Common Name:
Smalltooth sawfish, wide sawfish.


Other Taxonomic Groupings:
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Subclass: Elasmobranchii
Superorder: Euselachii

Species Description:
Pristis pectinata is a distinctive fish that grows to a length of 5.4 - 7.6 m (18 - 25 feet) (NMFS 2000). They are classified as rays, but are primarily shark-like in appearance, though the head, trunk, and pectoral fins are ventrally flattened as in rays. Pectoral fins have broad bases and straight hind margins (Simpfendorfer 2005). Body form is elongate, with the first and second dorsal fins tall and approximately equal in size. The origin of the first doral fin is set over the origin of the pelvic fins. Both the mouth and gill slits are located ventrally.
The snout is elongated into a flattened rostral blade that measures approximately 1/4 of total body length and is armed along either edge with 24 - 32 transverse teeth (NMFS 2000). 

The caudal fin lacks a well-defined lower lobe. Body color is generally blue-gray to brown, with the ventral surface white. Both jaws have 10 - 12 rows of teeth, with 88-128 teeth in the upper jaw and 84 - 176 in the lower jaw. The teeth are rounded anteriorly and have a blunt cutting posterior edge. The skin has numerous dermal denticles that vary in size and shape (Bigelow and Schroeder 1948; NMFS 2000). 

Potentially Misidentified Species:
The largetooth sawfish, Pristis perotteti, is similar in body shape and size. It can be distinguished from P. pectinata based on its having a somewhat longer rostrum, and by the number of teeth on the rostrum: smalltooth sawfishes have 23 - 34 teeth on either side of the saw, while largetooth sawfishes have 17 - 22 teeth. Further, P. perotteti has a distinct lower lobe on the caudal fin. Largetooth sawfishes are quite rare in Florida waters but have not yet been listed as Endangered species because so little is known about their biology.


Regional Occurrence:
Smalltooth sawfishes are a circumtropical species, and have been documented from Europe, West Africa, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. They have also been reported from the Philippines and Australia, though these specimens may possibly have been misidentified
(Adams 1995; Simpfendorfer 2005). In the Western Atlantic, the range extends from approximately southern Chesapeake Bay south to Brazil, including Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. However, observations of this endangered fish are now regularly reported only from the waters of south and southwest Florida, with occasional sitings as far north as the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's East coast, and Tampa Bay on Florida's West coast.

Records from the late 1700s and early 1800s report smalltooth sawfishes being captured in waters off New York and New Jersey during the summer months when water temperatures were at their highest in these areas. However, it is estimated that the historical range ofPristis pectinata has contracted by more than 90%, and the species is currently in danger of extinction.

IRL Distribution:
Records from the late 1800s show that the IRL was an area of abundance for Pristis pectinata (Bean 1884; Evermann and Bean 1896). Today, they are only rarely encountered.


Age, Size, Lifespan:
Pristis pectinata grows to a maximum length of 7.6 m (25 feet), though it is more commonly observed at approximately 6 m (19.6 feet) (Simpfendorfer 2005
). They may live longer than 30 years based on specimens held in public aquaria that lived in excess of 20 years (NMFS 2000).

Pristis pectinata has historically been described as "common" or "abundant" in scientific research from the late 1800s through approximately 1950 (Jordan and Evermann 1896; Breder 1952). The range of this species has contracted more than 90% (NMFS 2000) as the population rapidly declined. It has been considered rare in Gulf of Mexico since the 1970s. Peninsular Florida may be the only geographic are to host smalltooth sawfish year round (NMFS 2000).

Smalltooth sawfishes are ovoviviparous and reproduce via internal fertilization as occurs in all elasmobranchs. Maturity is believed to occur at approximately 10 years of age. Males measure at approximately 2.7 m (8.9 feet) in length, while females measure approximately 3.6 m (11.8 feet) at maturity (Simpfendorfer 2005)

There have been no comprehensive studies on age and growth parameters in smalltooth sawfishes, however, based on the biology of the closely related largetooth sawfish (Pristis perotteti), it is believed that P. pectinata is slow to grow and mature. This would suggest a low intrinsic rate of increase as well as low rebound potential (Smith et al 1998). Simpfendorfer (2000) modeled demography of the smalltooth sawfish and reported an intrinsic rate of increase ranging from 0.08 - 0.13 years, with a population doubling time of 5.4 - 8.5 years.

Females may carry 15 - 20 embryos (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953). Yolk sac embryos resemble adults relative to position of the fins and lack of a defined lower caudal lobe. During development, the rostrum is soft and flexible, with rostral teeth remaining entirely enclosed in a sheath of tissue until shortly after birth (NMFS 2000). In Florida, young are born late winter and spring and measure approximately 60 - 80 cm at birth (Simpfendorfer 2005).  The sheath of tissue covering the rostrum disappears shortly after birth so young can feed and defend themselves.

No records exist for gestation period for smalltooth sawfishes, however, in largetooth sawfish, gestation lasts approximately 5 months, with females producing litters approximately every other year (MNFS 2000).


Based on historical records of seasonal migration patterns, the lower thermal limit for Pristis pectinata is approximately 16-18°C (60.8 - 64.4 °F) (NMFS 2000).

Euryhaline. Pristis pectinata is generally found in estuaries and shallow bays, but is known to enter and remain in fresh water areas for extended periods of time (NMFS 2000). 


Trophic Mode:
Smalltooth sawfishes feed on small schooling fishes such as mullet and herrings, typically using the rostrum to slash through schools, eating those fish wounded in the attack. Some have been observed feeding on crustaceans and other benthic organisms. In these cases, the rostrum is often used to stir up the benthos, startling prey (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953).

Young Pristis pectinata may be vulnerable to attack by sharks, but there are no other known predators.

Smalltooth sawfishes generally inhabit inhabit shallow coastal waters of inshore bars and banks, mangrove creeks, seagrass beds, and river mouths, primarily over muddy or sandy bottoms. They occasionally enter freshwater. They are most commonly observed within 1 mile of land, at depths less than 10 m (32.8 feet) (NMFS 2000).

Young Pristis pectinata are most often found on sallow sands and mud banks no deeper than 30 cm (11.8 inches). Larger juveniles are dependent on shallow inshore habitats near river mouths and estuaries where water depth averages approximately 2 m (6.6 feet). Adults can be found in waters of 100 m depths (Simpfendorfer 2005).


Special Status:
Pristis pectinata, has been listed Federally as an Endangered species since April 1, 2003, and was the first elasmobranch to be listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It has been listed by the State of Florida as Endangered since April, 1992. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is the lead agency responsible for imperiled marine organisms.

In the early 1900s large numbers of sawfishes were captured and killed by recreational fishers, who removed the rostra of sawfishes as trophies. Pristis pectinata has never been commercially important, but large numbers of them were incidentally captured in commercial fisheries operations due to the ease with which their rostra became entangled in lines and nets. This is likely the primary cause of the rapid decline observed in the overall population, though habitat loss and degradation as well as pollution effects also played significant roles (NMFS 2000). 

Current threats to smalltooth sawfishes include: habitat degradation and loss of wetland habitat, eutrophication of coastal waters, point and non-point sources of pollution, increased sedimentation and turbidity, and hydrologic modification for human uses (NMFS 2000). Current conservation efforts are confined to monitoring activities, life history research, raising public awareness, and possession prohibition. A management and recovery plan is under development (Simpfendorfer 2005).


Adams, W.F. and C. Wilson. 1995. The status of the smalltooth sawfish, Pristis
Latham 1794 (Pristiformes: Pristidae), in the United States. Chondros

Bean, T.H. 1892. Observations upon fishes and fish culture. Bull. U.S. Fish.
    Comm. 10:49 - 61.

Bigelow, H.B. and W.C. Schroeder. 1953. Sawfishes, guitarfishes, skates and
    rays. Pp. 1 - 514 in: Tee-Van, J., C.M. Breder, A.E. Parr, W.C. Schroeder,
    and L.P. Schultz (eds.). Fishes of the Western North Atlantic, Part Two.
    Mem. Sear Found. Mar. Res. I.

Bigelow, H.B. and W.C. Schroeder. 1948. New genera and species of batoid
    fishes. J. Mar. Res. 543 - 566.

Breder, C.M. 1952. On the utility of the saw of the sawfish. Copeia
    1952 (2):90 - 91.

Evermann, B.W. and B.A. Bean. 1892. The fishes of Texas and the Rio Grande
    Basin considered chiefly with reference to their geographical distribution.
    Bull. U.S. Fish. Comm. 12:57-126.

Gilmore, R.G. 1995. Environmental and biogeographic factors
    influencing ichtyofaunal diversity: Indian River Lagoon. Bull. Mar. Sci.

Last, P.R. and J.D. Stevens. 1994. Sharks and Rays of Australia. CSIRO,
    Australia. 513 pp.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2000. Status review of the smalltooth sawfish
    (Pristis pectinata).

Schmid, T.H., L.M. Ehrhardt, and F.F. Snelson. 1988. Notes on the occurrence
    of rays (Elasmobranchii, batoidea) in the Indian River Lagoon system, Florida. 
    Fl. Sci. 51(2):121-128.

Simpfendorfer, C.A. 2005. Threatened fishes of the World: Pristis pectinata
    Latham, 1794 (Pristidae). Environmental Biology of Fishes

Simpfendorfer, C.A. 2000. Predicting population recovery rates for endangered
    Western Atlantic sawfishes using demographic analysis. Environmental
    Biology of Fishes. 58:371-377.

Snelson, F.F. and S.E. Williams. 1981. Notes on the occurrence, distribution,
    and biology of elasmobranch fishes in the Indian River Lagoon system,
    Florida. Estuaries 4(2):110 - 120.

Stehmann, M. 1981. Pristidae. In: W. Fischer, G. Bianchi, and W.B. Scott (eds.)
    FAO species identification sheets for fishery purposes. Eastern Central Atlantic
    Fishing Areas 34, 47 (in part). Vol. 5.


Report by: K. Hill, Smithsonian Marine Station
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Page last updated: July 25, 2006