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Largetooth Sawfish (Pristis pristis)

Status | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution | Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview | Taxonomy | Key Documents | More Info


ESA Endangered - throughout its range (includes species and populations formerly considered P. microdon, P. perotetti, and P. pristis)
CITES Appendix I - throughout its range

Species Description

1,300 pounds (600 kg)
up to 23 feet (6.5 m)
known for their "saws," long, flat snouts edged with pairs of teeth
up to 80 years; they reach maturity at 8-10 years (~10 feet (3 m) in length)
mostly fish, but also crustaceans and mollusks
"ovoviviparous", meaning the mother holds the eggs inside of her until the young are ready to be born; gestation lasts 5 months and litter sizes range from 1 – 13 pups; reproduction occurs in freshwater

Sawfish, like sharks, skates and rays, belong to a group of fish called elasmobranchs, whose skeletons are made of cartilage. Sawfish are actually modified rays with a shark-like body and gill slits on their ventral (abdominal) side.

Early sawfish, distant cousins to modern day sawfish, first appeared in the ocean around 100 million years ago. Today's "modern day" sawfish species have been in the ocean around 56 million years.

Sawfish get their name from their rostrum or "saws"--long, flat snouts edged with pairs of teeth which are used to locate, stun, and kill prey. Their diet includes mostly fish but also some crustaceans and mollusks.

Largetooth sawfish and smalltooth sawfish are the two species of sawfish that have historically inhabited U.S. waters, though largetooth sawfish have not been found in the United States in 50 years. The smalltooth sawfish is also listed as endangered under the ESA. The two species can be distinguished by noting the number of teeth on one side of the rostrum. Largetooth sawfish can have between 14-23 rostral teeth on one edge of the saw whereas smalltooth sawfish usually have 23-34. Another way to tell the two species apart is the location of the dorsal fin. The dorsal fin of largetooth sawfish originates anterior to the pelvic fins, while in smalltooth sawfish the first dorsal fin originates along the same axis as the pelvic fins.

Recent genetic analyses have shown that the species and populations formerly known as P. perotetti, P. microdon, and P. pristis are actually the same species of sawfish and are now known as the largetooth sawfish, P. pristis.


Largetooth sawfish are generally restricted to shallow (less than 33 ft (10 m)) coastal, estuarine, and fresh waters, although they have been found at depths of up to 400 feet (122 m) in Lake Nicaragua. They are often found in brackish water near river mouths and large bays, preferring partially enclosed waters, lying in deeper holes and on bottoms of mud or muddy sand. Like the smalltooth sawfish, they are highly mangrove-associated. While scientists believe they spend most of their time on the bottom, most observations occur when they are swimming near the surface in the wild.

Certain species of sawfish are known to ascend inland in large river systems, and they are among the few elasmobranchs that are known from freshwater systems in many parts of the world. Largetooth sawfish are particularly well-known from their occurrence in Lake Nicaragua, where there was a commercial fishery for many years.


Largetooth sawfish have the largest historic range of all sawfishes. The species historically occurred throughout the Indo-Pacific near southeast Asia and Australia and throughout the Indian Ocean to east Africa. Largetooth sawfish have also been noted in the eastern Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Ecuador or possibly Peru. In the Atlantic Ocean, largetooth sawfish historically inhabited warm temperate to tropical marine waters from Brazil to the Gulf of Mexico in the western Atlantic, and Namibia to Mauritania in the eastern Atlantic.

Current reports of largetooth sawfish throughout the Indian Ocean are isolated and rare and include India and Madagascar. The only recent reports in the Indo-Pacific are in Indonesia and northern and western Australia. The only recent reports of largetooth sawfish in the eastern Pacific are anecdotal reports from Columbia, Nicaragua, and Panama. In the western Atlantic recent reports only exist from Costa Rica and Brazil. In the eastern Atlantic, the range of sawfishes has decreased to the Bissagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau.

P. perotetti occur in warm temperate to tropical waters in the Atlantic, and Caribbean and freshwater habitats in Central and South America and Africa. Currently, they are thought to primarily occur in freshwater habitats in Central (including Mexico) and South America and West Africa.

Historically, P. perotetti occurred from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico south through Brazil, and in the United States they were reported in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly along the Texas coast and east into Florida waters. In the eastern Atlantic, they occurred from Spain through Angola. Historical occurrences in North America were much more limited than those of the related smalltooth sawfish, and were strictly confined to shallow near-shore, warm (greater than 64-86°F (18-30°C)) temperate and tropical estuarine localities, partly enclosed lagoons, and similar areas.

Population Trends

There are few reliable data available for this species, and no robust estimates of historic or current population size exist. However, available data indicate that the species' distribution has been greatly reduced, and that the population numbers have declined dramatically.


Conservation Efforts

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it is illegal to catch or harm an endangered sawfish. However, some fishermen catch sawfish incidentally while fishing for other species. We, with the Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery Team, have developed guidelines for fishermen instructing them how to safely handle and release any sawfish they incidentally catch.

Some states have taken additional step to protect largetooth sawfish species: Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama have prohibited the "take" of sawfish. Texas has listed them as endangered.

All sawfish (Pristidae) species are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Appendix I limits international trade in species to exceptional circumstances only.

Regulatory Overview

The largetooth sawfish was added to the candidate species list in 1988, removed in 1997, and placed back on the list again in 1999. In April 2009, we received a petition from WildEarth Guardians requesting that this species be listed under the ESA.

We completed a status report in March 2010. On May 7, 2010, we published a proposed rule to list the species as endangered. On July 12, 2011, we published a final rule listing this species as endangered under the ESA.

In September 2010, we received a petition from WildEarth Guardians requesting that six species of sawfishes be listed under the ESA.

On June 4, 2013, we proposed to list the species as endangered. This proposed rule accepted recently proposed taxonomic changes to the sawfishes that has resulted in the largetooth sawfish known as P. pristis being revised to include the species formerly known as P. microdon and P. perotetti. On December 12, 2014, we listed the largetooth sawfish under the ESA.


Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Order: Pristiformes
Family: Pristidae
Genus: Pristis
Species: pristis

Key Documents

(All documents are in PDF format.)
Title Federal Register Date
Final Rule Listing 5 Species of Sawfish as Endangered under the ESA 79 FR 73978 12/12/2014
12-Month Finding and Proposed Endangered Listing of Five Species of Sawfish, including a proposed change in the scientific name for largetooth sawfish to Pristis pristis 78 FR 33300 06/04/2013
Final ESA Listing as Endangered 76 FR 40822 07/12/2011
Proposed Listing as Endangered Under the ESA 75 FR 25174 05/07/2010
Status Review n/a 03/2010
Species of Concern Fact Sheet: Detailed n/a 02/23/2010
n/a 02/23/2010
90-day finding, Initiation of Status Review 74 FR 37671 07/29/2009
Petition from WildEarth Guardians to List Largetooth Sawfish Under the ESA This link is an external site. n/a 04/24/2009
Previous 90-day finding (2000) 65 FR 12959 03/10/2000
Petition from Ocean Conservancy (formerly Center for Marine Conservation) to List Smalltooth and Largetooth Sawfish under the ESA as a North American "DPS" n/a 11/30/1999

More Information

Updated: January 2, 2015