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Endangered Elasmobranchs

Today is International Sawfish Day, and we’re celebrating these unique elasmobranchs—and bringing awareness to the threats they face.

They may resemble sharks, but sawfish are actually a type of ray. Like all rays, sharks and skates (collectively known as elasmobranchs), their skeletons are made of cartilage. This includes their most notable feature: a long, tooth-lined, chainsaw-like snout, called a rostrum.

There are five species of these rays—the smalltooth, largetooth, green, dwarf and narrow sawfish—and the number of rostral teeth is dependent on the species. The smalltooth, for example, sports between 23 and 34 teeth on its rostrum, while the largetooth has about 14 to 23. These impressive snouts aren’t just for looks—sawfish swing their rostrums side to side through the water to injure passing prey. They’re also used for defense, and to root through sand to dig up crustaceans and other prey.

Did you know? The number of rostral teeth a sawfish will have is fixed before its born.

At the National Aquarium, you can find two largetooth sawfish in our Shark Alley exhibit. Putting the “large” in “largetooth,” individuals of this species can weigh upward of a whopping 1,300 pounds and measure nearly 23 feet long.

Sawfish can be found in tropical and subtropical waters around the world. Only two species—the largetooth and smalltooth—have historically inhabited U.S. coastal waters, although there have been no confirmed sightings of the largetooth for more than 50 years.

On the Brink of Extinction

Although sawfish have been around for millions of years, modern populations have seen a serious decline, and all species have been listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. They’re some of the most endangered fish in the world, and in many parts of their natural range, they’ve become locally extinct.

There are several culprits in their population decline. These rays are found in coastal waters, so development in these areas has led to devastating habitat loss. They’re also commonly the victims of bycatch, since their long, toothy rostrums are easily entangled in fishing gear. They reproduce at a late age and their litters have a small number of pups, so sawfish are particularly vulnerable to any impacts to their populations.

What Can You Do for Sawfish?

Now that you know all about sawfish and the threats to their dwindling populations, it’s time to take action. Are you ready? Here’s what you can do:

  • Clean up your local waterways. When you participate in a cleanup event, you’re helping to remove harmful plastic pollution and other debris from your local waterways that would otherwise make its way to the ocean. Eliminating plastic pollution makes waterways and the ocean safer for sawfish—and every other aquatic animal that depends on these ecosystems.
  • Make sustainable seafood choices. Choose your seafood wisely! Supporting sustainable seafood practices means that you’re supporting fisheries that manage their operations responsibly.
  • Share what you’ve learned. Despite their unique appearance and declining population status, not many people know about sawfish or about the threats they face. International Sawfish Day is the perfect opportunity to share what you’ve learned—you can use the official #IntlSawfishDay hashtag on social—but every day is a good day to bring awareness to these endangered elasmobranchs and to spread the word about how we can help them!

Sawfish Day Activities

Check out our sawfish-themed activity sheet—featuring a coloring page and word search—or create your very own origami sawfish with an easy-to-follow video tutorial, courtesy of our friends at the Sawfish Conservation Society!

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