For years, sawfish carried a reputation as a formidable denizen of the deep. It has been known and hunted for thousands of years and plays an important mythological and spiritual role in many societies around the world. It is said to slice boats open and let them sink to the bottom, devouring the crew once they have drowned.
However, contrary to these myths and legends, sawfish neither consumes marine mammals nor poses a significant threat to them. Its dangerous nature depends upon perspective and who’s telling the tale. Throughout history, sawfish portrayals have been less than true to the facts, whether the misinformed party is the media, historians, or the fishermen who encounter these ancient fishes.
The sawfish (Pristis pristis) is a large ray-like animal that has a rostrum full of spikes. If you ever see one, you might wonder if someone had taped a chainsaw to the body of a shark.
They all wield a distinctive saw, lined with two rows of sharp, outward-pointing “teeth”.
Sawfish is among the largest fish which can grow up to 21 feet long and over 1300 pounds. However, ancient reports tell of 5000-pound sawfish. Although often found in the open ocean, they are known to travel inland into freshwater rivers and lakes.
But the old-age question still lingers: what are their “saws” for? According to experts, their saws are both trackers and weapons, studded with small pores that allow the sawfish to sense the minute electrical fields produced by living things. Even in murky water, their prey cannot hide.
Once the sawfish has found its target, it uses the saw like a swordsman. It slashes at its vîctim with fast sideways swipes, either stunning it or impaling it upon the teeth.
Sometimes, the slashes are powerful enough to cut a fish in half. Even less dramatic blows can knock a fish to the sea floor, and the sawfish pins it in place with its saw.
Even with their fâtal weapons, the sawfish is still in for trouble, experiencing a drastic decline in recent decades. They are critically endangered according to IUCN, partly because fishermen hack off their fins to supply the growing demand for sharks’ fins for shark fin soups and traditional medicines. But even if people aren’t seeking out these species, they face habitat loss, and their nets can entangle the spiky saws all the same.