Pristis pectinataCommon sawfish

Geographic Range

Smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) have a historic range that includes the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Indian Ocean. However, smalltooth sawfish populations have dwindled in size in recent decades. Presently, they are found predominantly in the Atlantic Ocean, close to the coast of Florida. (Simpfendorfer, 2001)


Smalltooth sawfish live in coastal waters, typically at depths of less than 10 m, although they have been reported at depths greater than 70 m. They prefer shallow areas because they are often associated with warmer water temperature. The most suitable water temperature for smalltooth sawfish is estimated to be around 36 °C. They also raise their young in shallow water to avoid large predators, such as sharks, that live in deeper water.

Smalltooth sawfish can tolerate freshwater and saltwater environments, making use of oceans, estuaries, and rivers. Despite their ability to live in freshwater, smalltooth sawfish prefer habitats with salinity levels between 21.4 and 34.7 ppt and dissolved oxygen levels between 3.18 and 8.14 mg/L. (Carlson, et al., 2014; Norton, et al., 2012; Simpfendorfer, 2001)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • rivers and streams
  • coastal
  • Range depth
    less than 10 m to 70 m
    to 229.66 ft

Physical Description

Smalltooth sawfish adults are 4 to 5 m long (400 – 500 cm) and weigh around 315 kg, on average. Their rostrums constitute around one quarter of their total length. Smalltooth sawfish are about 85 cm at birth and have a high growth rate during their first year of life. Smalltooth sawfish are grey with a brown tinge on their dorsal sides and white ventral sides. They have around 23 teeth protruding horizontally from each side of their rostrums. There is no apparent sexual dimorphism in smalltooth sawfish, except that males have a pair of external reproductive organs, called claspers. (Simpfendorfer, 2001)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    315 kg
    693.83 lb
  • Average length
    400-500 cm


Smalltooth sawfish are ovoviviparous. Neonatal smalltooth sawfish have developed rostrums, but they are more flexible and lack the row of teeth on each side. Smalltooth sawfish are an average of 85 cm long upon hatching. Juvenile smalltooth sawfish inhabit water less than 1 m deep for around 2 years, until they are fully developed and better able to defend themselves. Juveniles grow quickly, at a rate of about 19.6 cm per year. Their growth rate slows significantly by the time they reach maturity, at 400 to 500 cm long. ("Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009; Wiley and Simpfendorfer, 2010)


Smalltooth sawfish have multiple partners in a breeding season. Males reproduce annually, but females have a biennial breeding cycle. Offspring are usually born in spring, between March and April. (Simpfendorfer, et al., 2008)

There is limited information regarding smalltooth sawfish reproduction. Females reproduce every other year and give birth to 15 live young, after a gestation period of around 5 months. Males reach sexual maturity when they are around 270 cm long, whereas females reach maturity when they are about 360 cm long. The age at which males and females reach maturity is undetermined. (Lee, 2000; Seitz and Poulakis, 2002; Simpfendorfer, 2005)

  • Breeding season
    About 5 months
  • Range number of offspring
    15 to 20
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    5 months
  • Average time to independence
    2 years

There is limited information regarding parental investment in smalltooth sawfish.


There is limited information regarding lifespans of smalltooth sawfish in the wild. They can live to be 30 to 60 years old in captivity (Chapman, et al., 2011)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    30 to 60 years


Smalltooth sawfish juveniles inhabit shallow waters, around 1 m deep, where they are safe from large predators and can find small prey to eat. Adults usually move into deeper water when they reach maturity. Little is known about migration patterns of smalltooth sawfish, but water salinity likely plays a role in their movements. (Lee, 2000; Seitz and Poulakis, 2002; Simpfendorfer, et al., 2011; "Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)

Home Range

There is limited information regarding quantitative home range or territory sizes of smalltooth sawfish. Smalltooth sawfish spend the majority of their first two years in shallow waters or amongst mangroves. As they mature, they no longer rely on the protection of shallow water and move to areas with a wider range of depths. ("Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)

Communication and Perception

Smalltooth sawfish perceive their environment through visual, acoustic, and olfactory cues. In clear waters, they rely on their eyesight to catch prey and evade predators. In murky waters, they rely more heavily on their sense of smell and their mechanosensory system to detect vibrations propagating through water. The main mechanosensory system of smalltooth sawfish is the peripheral sensory system, which sends signals to the nervous system and alerts smalltooth sawfish of their immediate surroundings. They also have a lateral line system along each side of their bodies, which is sensitive to vibrations. Smalltooth sawfish can determine the proximity and direction of potential predators and prey by the intensity of the vibrations they detect. Smalltooth sawfish also have organs called ampullae of Lorenzini, which detect electric fields emitted by other organisms in the water. (Wueringer, et al., 2011)

Food Habits

Smalltooth sawfish use the teeth that protrude horizontally from their rostrums as a means of catching prey. When they detect prey ahead, they rapidly move their rostrums side to side to potentially harm or kill their target. Smalltooth sawfish diets consist mostly of mullets (family Mugilidae), clupeids (family Clupeidae), and various crustaceans. ("Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • other marine invertebrates


The primary predators of smalltooth sawfish are humans (Homo sapiens). Their rostrums easily get tangled in fishnets, which can kill them and damage fishing equipment. Fishermen typically kill smalltooth sawfish when they catch them. Natural predators include several shark species. Smalltooth sawfish have dark, sandy coloration on their dorsal sides, which helps them camouflage with the substrate around them. They also exhibit a type of cryptic camouflage called countershading. Their dorsal sides are grey-brown and their ventral sides are white, which makes them difficult to detect both from above and from below. (Lee, 2000; Simpfendorfer, et al., 2008)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

There is limited information regarding the roles that smalltooth sawfish play in their environments. They are predators of small fish and crustaceans and also serve as prey for larger predators, such as sharks. Smalltooth sawfish also serve as host for microbothriid ectoparasites such as Neoheterocotyle ruggierii. These parasites negatively affect smalltooth sawfish health and can increase mortality rates. (Cheung and Nigrelli, 1983; "Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Neoheterocotyle ruggierii

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Smalltooth sawfish are high in demand at certain fish markets for body parts such as organs, rostral teeth, skin, and fins. Their organs are known to provide a source of vitamin A and their teeth are used in cock fighting as an extra weapon attached to the feet of roosters. Smalltooth sawfish skin is used to make tough leather material for boots or belts and their fins are traded for food. However, their rostrums are highest in demand, with prices of around $5,200 per m of rostrum length. ("Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Smalltooth sawfish negatively impact fishing practices. They are a common bycatch species in certain areas, and the teeth on their rostrums can damage nets and maim or kill market fish species in the same net. The loss of nets and products reduces the amount of profit fishermen bring in. ("Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)

Conservation Status

Smalltooth sawfish are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and are considered critically endangered in some areas of the Atlantic Ocean. Smalltooth sawfish have a low reproduction rate and are slow to mature, making them susceptible to further endangerment and extinction. Populations are in decline primarily because their shoreline habitats are increasingly affected by humans. Divers, boats, pollution, and fishing practices all negatively affect smalltooth sawfish. They get caught in fishing nets and are usually killed when brought on board.

Current conservation efforts for smalltooth sawfish are focused on increasing population sizes. Methods of accomplishing this include protecting habitat and limiting the amount of sawfish caught in nets. Also, if fishermen accidentally catch smalltooth sawfish, they are required to return them to the water instead of killing them. By restoring suitable nursery habitats (e.g., mangroves near shorelines), there is hope that smalltooth sawfish will return to locations from which they are extirpated. Researchers are also implementing captive breeding programs and setting aside restricted wild areas in order to conserve smalltooth sawfish populations. (Simpfendorfer, 2001; Simpfendorfer, 2005; "Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata)", 2009)


Shannon Nasca (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


uses electric signals to communicate


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming


reproduction in which eggs develop within the maternal body without additional nourishment from the parent and hatch within the parent or immediately after laying.


an animal that mainly eats fish


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


National Marine Fisheries Service. Smalltooth sawfish recovery plan (Pristis pectinata). 15983. Saint Petersburg, Florida: National oceans and atmospheric administration. 2009.

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