Five Facts About…

Sawfishes in Florida

Sawfishes live in coastal tropical and subtropical waters, including estuaries and river systems. Once ranging from New York to Texas, the smalltooth sawfish is now largely limited to the waters off the Florida coasts. With populations of sawfishes in decline, all information about these species in invaluable, which is why we have been studying sawfishes at the Florida Museum.

sawfish in the wild

Sawfish in the wild. Photo courtesy John Dickinson

Here are some things you should know about sawfishes:

1: Sawfishes are rays, not sharks.

Sawfishes are not sharks, but actually rays. They are elasmobranchs, a group that includes sharks, skates, and rays. They are shaped like a shark but with a long rostrum—the ‘saw’ on their snout—that can be about 1/3 of their total body length. Like other elasmobranch species, they have a cartilaginous skeleton instead of bones, and some grow to 20 feet long.

2: There are five species of sawfishes.

There are five species of sawfishes worldwide, but in Florida waters we now only see the smalltooth sawfish. The largetooth sawfish previously was also encountered in Florida waters, but it’s been decades since one has been spotted near our state.

3: They don’t have teeth on their rostra (“saws”).

The things that look like teeth on their rostra (snout) are actually denticles, which are very specialized scales. They usually are shy when encountering people and don’t attack with their spiked rostra. Instead, they thrash their snouts from side to side near the sea bottom to stun fish and crustaceans, their preferred food.

4: You cannot legally buy or sell sawfish rostra.

Sawfishes are protected by the Endangered Species Act in the United Sates so it is illegal to catch, harass, collect, buy, or sell any part of any species of sawfish, including its rostrum. Florida has also created strong laws about catching and buying or selling sawfish rostra or any sawfish parts. These measures were enacted to protect the remaining populations of sawfishes worldwide.

Note: All five species of sawfish are listed as endangered or critically endangered worldwide by the IUCN since populations of all species are decreasing. They are in danger of extinction due to overfishing and habitat modification and loss.

sawfish encounter guide

Sawfish Encounter Guide

5: Scientists want to know if you see a sawfish!

Sawfish are endangered species and all information is invaluable. You can help our conservation efforts by reporting your encounter and help spread the good word on sawfish around the world.

You can report sawfish encounters easily and quickly online or by phone. Here’s more info:

Report a Sawfish Encounter



Report a sawfish encounter

• Learn more about the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum.

• Learn more about Ichthyology at the Florida Museum.