Smalltooth Sawfish

Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

Smalltooth Sawfish. Photo © Doug Perrine

Pristis pectinata

Sawfish may look somewhat like sharks, but with wide pectoral fins and flatter bodies, they are actually modified rays. Their rostrum (snout), instead of teeth, has specialized denticles which are a type of scales, that they use to stun and injure small fish before eating them. These sawfish grow to an average of 18 feet long, 25% of which is their rostrum. They prefer bays, estuaries and rivers, but have been found in deep water and in freshwater habitats.

Order - Pristiformes
Family - Pristidae
Genus - Pristis
Species - pectinata

Common Names

The sawfish family derives its name from its elongated, blade-like snout, studded with a number of teeth on either side. The smalltooth sawfish has smaller teeth than other member of its family. Other common names that identify this species include common sawfish, sawfish, comb shark, small-tooth common sawfish, wide sawfish (English); espadachin, espadon, pejepeine, pejes sierra, pez espada, pez rastrillo, sierra (Spanish); zaagvis (Dutch); serra (Portugese); requin-scie, poisson scie (French); pristis (Greek); and kammsagefisch (German).

Importance to Humans

Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

UCF biologists accidentally caught this 12' 10" (3.9m) sawfish while conducting sea turtle research off Sebastian in 1998. Photo courtesy D. Bagley

Smalltooth sawfish are valued not only as a food fish, but also for its liver oil that is used in medicines, soaps, and in leather tanning products. The rostral saws are often sold as curios and adult fishes stuffed for display. Due to its fight on the line, the smalltooth sawfish is considered a prized gamefish.

Danger to Humans

Humans are not in direct danger from the sawfish. However, due to its saw, injury can occur accidentally if an animal is surprised, frightened, or captured.


Habitat destruction and overfishing have succeeded in eradicating the smalltooth sawfish from the majority of its former range. Consequently, it survives in small pockets throughout its current range. The last remaining population in U.S. waters is off south Florida, a sad remnant of a population that once ranged from New York to Texas. On April 1, 2003 the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service placed the smalltooth sawfish on the Endangered Species List, making it the first marine fish species to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has also listed P. pectinata as "Endangered" throughout its range and "Critically Endangered" in the north and southwest Atlantic Ocean. Florida has also established three wildlife refuges to further protect its habitat. This new level of protection will hopefully help this unique elasmobranch recover to its previous levels of abundance within U.S. waters.

For more information on sawfish conservation, please visit our Sawfish Conservation page.

> Check the status of the smalltooth sawfish at the IUCN website.

Geographical Distribution

Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish, Map

Historical world distribution map for the smalltooth sawfish

Smalltooth sawfish are found in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic Ocean. In the western Atlantic they have historically ranged from New York to Brazil, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. They are found in the eastern Atlantic from Gibraltar to the southwest coast of Africa, and once possibly inhabited the Mediterranean Sea. Genetic research conducted by Vicente Faria has revealed that opposed to the commonly held belief of smalltooth sawfish as a circumglobal species, the species has only been observed in the Atlantic Ocean with many dwarf and green sawfish misidentified as smalltooth sawfish.


This sawfish primarily occurs in estuarine and coastal habitats such as bays, lagoons, and rivers. It does at times occur in deeper waters, however, and may make crossings to offshore islands. It can tolerate freshwater.


Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

Smalltooth sawfish caught near Crystal River, Florida. Photo © George Burgess

Distinctive Features
This fish is easily recognized by its flattened body and wing-like pectoral fins. The mouth is located ventrally, the eyes are positioned dorsally. The rostral saw of P. pectinata is approximately 25% of the body's total length. The saw is widest at the base, with teeth more broad than long, and spaced apart. Anteriorly, the teeth become more long than broad. Each tooth is slightly flattened dorso-ventrally creating a sharp anterior edge, while the posterior of the tooth has a groove that creates two cutting edges. The tips of the teeth are sharp, becoming blunt over time.

Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

Smalltooth sawfish ventral and dorsal view of head and saw. Image © George Burgess

The smalltooth sawfish shares the western Atlantic and parts of the eastern Atlantic with the largetooth sawfish (P. perotteti), and can be distinguished from it based on a few morphological characteristics. The first dorsal fin ofP. pectinata originates at the same place dorsally as the pelvic fins do ventrally, while in P. perotteti the first dorsal originates anterior to the pelvic fins. The pectoral fins of P. pectinata are smaller than those of P. perotteti. The upper and lower lobes of P. pectinata's caudal fins are less prominent than those of P. perotteti. Finally, the saw ofP. pectinata contains 25-32 pairs of rostral teeth while P. perotteti has a maximum of 20 teeth, which are larger in size.

Dorsally, it is brownish or bluish gray body with a white underside. There are no other distinct markings on the smalltooth sawfish.

Ten to twelve rows of teeth are maintained in both jaws of the smalltooth sawfish. The upper and lower jaws have approximately 88-128 and 84-176 teeth respectively. The teeth are rounded anteriorly and have a blunt cutting posterior edge.

Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

Smalltooth sawfish. Image © Division of Ichthyology/FLMNH

Numerous dermal denticles vary in size and shape. Dorsally, the denticles are blunt and ovate in shape with low pedicels, which give a roughness to the skin. The smallest denticles tend to be found toward the outer margins of the fins and on the head, just anterior to the eyes. Ventrally, the denticles are blunt, varying from round to oval to rounded subpolygonal, and lack pedicels. The fact that they lack pedicels makes the ventral side smoother to the touch than the dorsal side. Denticles are so prolific ventrally that the skin is barely visible.

The saws of newborns are completely void of denticles. However, by the time the animal reaches 4.5 feet (1.4 m), the saw is completely covered. Denticles on the midzone of the saw are similar in size to those located ventrally, but become larger toward the saw edges.

Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

Largest officially captured smalltooth sawfish in Florida waters! Image courtesy W. Bloyd

Size, Age, and Growth
The maximum length recorded is 24.7 feet (7.6 m); however, a length of 18 feet (5.5 m) is considered average. The average lifespan for the smalltooth sawfish is unknown.

Food Habits
The smalltooth sawfish swings its saw from side to side, impaling prey fishes on the rostral teeth. The sawfish then scrapes the captured prey off against the bottom substrate and consumes its. The saw is also used to disturb muddy bottoms in search of small prey items, including benthic invertebrates such as crustaceans.

Sawfishes are ovoviviparous, producing embryos that mature internally and are nourished by a yolk sac. Gestation is believed to last a year, with 15-20 pups born per litter. Increased catch records of gravid females and juveniles in late spring and early autumn suggests that P. pectinata gives birth during the warmer summer months. Over parts of their range where the water is warm throughout the year, it has been speculated that this fish has a continual reproductive cycle. Females in southern Africa have been recorded moving into the safety of estuaries to give birth. The saws of the pups are fully developed and sheathed upon birth, but are malleable to prevent injury to the mother while passing through the cloaca.

Small specimens of the smalltooth sawfish are susceptible to predation by sharks.


Pristis pectinata - Smalltooth Sawfish

"A practical fish employs a saw in the manner of a sawfish." (Aldrovandi)

The smalltooth sawfish was first described by Latham (1794) as Pristis pectinatus. This name was recently changed to the currently valid Pristis pectinata (Latham 1794) due to a gender issue with the original name. The genus name Pristis is derived from the Greek word "pristis" meaning saw. Synonyms that have also appeared in the literature include Pristis serra Bloch and Schneider 1801, Pristis granulosa Bloch and Schneider 1801, Pristis acutirostris Duméril 1865, Pristis leptodon Duméril 1865, Pristis megalodon Duméril 1865, Pristis occa Duméril 1865, Pristis woermanni Fischer 1884,Pristis evermanni Fischer 1884, and Pristis anandalei Chaudhuri 1908.

Prepared by: Nancy Passarelli and Tobey Curtis