Poole Museum presents:

Sawfish

Wild Life in the Red

The most endangered fish on earth

Poole Museum has a collection of sawfish rostra (saws), but they didn’t come from local waters. They are relics of a bygone age when museums collected weird and wonderful objects from around the globe, without consideration for the environmental impact. 

The objects behind the story

Deep in its collections store, Poole Museum has eight sawfish rostra (saws) and the preserved body of a pup. They were collected many years ago as trophies or curiosities, then given to the museum.

Due to human activities, the sawfish, one of our biggest and most impressive fish species, is now almost extinct. 

Eight sawfish rostra of different sizes
Eight of Poole Museum’s saws showing the variation in size and the different ways they were removed from the living sawfish

So what are sawfish?

Sawfish belong to the same family as sharks, rays and skates. They are cartilaginous fish, meaning they have a skeleton made of cartilage, rather than bone.

The name comes from the saw-like blade that extends from their upper jaw, called a rostrum (plural rostra).

Sawfish are among the largest fish in the world, with some reaching up to seven metres long (23ft). That’s even bigger than a great white shark!

Largetooth sawfish
Largetooth sawfish, released after Daly River sawfish rescue, Australia. Photo Peter Kyne

The saw – a handy tool

The rostrum has lots of uses for the sawfish. It can be used to:

• Scan the murky water and detect electrical signals given off by their prey (mainly fish and crabs)
• Dig out prey from the sand
• Slash from side to side, stunning their prey
• Fight off predators

Top predators: By eating other creatures, predators like sawfish make sure that marine populations don’t get too big. They help keep the balance of nature (biodiversity).

Fishy facts!

Sawfish are also called carpenter sharks (for obvious reasons), but they are actually rays.

There is also a species called a sawshark, but that’s, well, a shark!

Largetooth sawfish emerging from water
Largetooth sawfish, released on Daly River, Australia. Photo Peter Kyne.

Hunter becomes the hunted

The very thing that made the sawfish a successful predator also made it a prey species itself. But the hunters were humans. 

In the 19th century, sawfish appeared in many natural history publications. Their impressive size and strange rostra made sawfish very desirable to hunters and collectors. Catching them became a sport, and the result was the mass slaughter of sawfish.

Sawfish rostra were displayed in stately homes, museums, aquariums, pubs and auction houses. 

Black and white photo of sawfish on hook wiht man who caught it standing beside
State Library of Queensland - Large sawfish caught in Queensland c.1921

Fake fish news!

Many early reports about sawfish were completely inaccurate. In the 16th century, Archbishop Olaus Magnus, a respected naturalist, described sawfish as monsters that swam under ships, cut them in two, then fed on the sailors as the ship sank!

In the 19th century, Poole’s renowned naturalist, Philip Henry Gosse, wrote that sawfish used the rostra to slice into whales. Find out more about Poole’s early naturalists here. 

Photo below: Little and large – Poole’s largest sawfish saw alongside the preserved narrow sawfish pup.

A creature of spiritual meaning

The sawfish has long had symbolic and spiritual meaning for the indigenous people of Australia, Africa and America. 

• Aboriginal cultures believed sawfish were other-worldly beings, using their saws to carve out rivers. 
The people of Panama display saws in their homes or ships to protect them from the evil of the sea.
• In Gambia, saws are hung to ward off evil spirits, but in Guinea they are displayed as symbols of strength.
Western African cultures use the saw in medicinal and magical ceremonies.

Historic image of sawfish being caught by group of people
State Library of Queensland - Large sawfish caught in Queensland c.1921

On the Red List

All five species of sawfish are on the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The five species of sawfish are:

• Narrow sawfish (Endangered)
• Dwarf sawfish Endangered)
• Smalltooth sawfish (Critically endangered)
• Largetooth sawfish (Critically endangered)
• Green sawfish (Critically endangered)

A large catch of sawfish hanging on the side of a boat C 1940
A large catch of sawfish hanging on the side of a boat C 1940. From the Stetson Kennedy Collection.

Why are sawfish under such threat?

The main threats to sawfish include:

• Accidental fishery –by-catch, or the saw gets tangled in fishing nets
• Deliberate fishery – shark fin trade, saw harvesting
• Habitat destruction – pollution and development
• Marine pollution – sawfish saws are easily caught in marine litter which can be fatal

There are few places in the world left where sawfish survive. Jeff Whitty, President of the Sawfish Conservation Society, said:

“Sawfishes have drastically declined in numbers and range over the last 100 years. This decline has resulted in the local extinction of some populations. They were previously found in tropical and subtropical waters throughout the world, but now northern Australia and southern Florida may be the last strongholds for sawfishes.”

Man holding largetooth sawfish
Largetooth sawfish being monitored on the Adelaide River, Australia.

How did these sawfish make it to the museum?

Poole Museum has 10 specimens of sawfish. Five of the rostra and the pup are all narrow sawfish. The five others are either green or smalltooth sawfish. 

The museum’s records only show the origins of three of the rostra, gifted by Mr J Cole in May 1913, Mr Boyce of Longfleet in 1938, and Mr  Clark of Parkstone 1946.

Poole Museum doesn’t currently display natural history collections, but there is evidence that some of the rostra were once displayed in Scaplen’s Court. 

Photo below: Poole Museum’s Narrow sawfish pup – its small size indicates it could be new-born.

Sawfish detectives!

With so little information, the museum needed help to identify the sawfish species that the rostra came from. They measured and photographed the specimens and sent the information to the Sawfish Conservation Society. The society was able to identify each species using detective work based on:

  • The tooth pattern and shape
  • Whether teeth run along the full length of the rostrum
  • The number of teeth.
Man examining the condition of Poole Museum's largest saw
Examining the condition of Poole Museum's largest saw.

SawSearch – scouring museums for sawfish saws

A sawfish research project is underway involving museums across the globe, including Poole Museum. Nicole Philipps of SawSearch said: “This is a global initiative to collect tissue samples from old sawfish saws. It has taken us to all corners of the US, the UK and Australia.”

The scientists are collecting tissue samples from the rostra, then extracting DNA. They can compare the genetic diversity of these historic populations to that of sawfish populations today.

The work is funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation and the Shark Conservation Fund. Read more about the project here. 

Woman extracting DNA sample from sawfish rostum
Nicole Phillips of SawSearch project, extracting DNA from sawfish tissue samples. Photo: Annmarie Fearing.
Woman taking sample from sawfish rostrum
Kelcee Smith sampling a saw at The Deep aquarium in Hull. Photo: Annemarie Fearing.

See a saw?

You can help in sawfish research by looking out for sawfish rostra in pubs, museums, houses or shops. If you see one, take a photograph and measure it (if possible), then send the details to the Shark Trust.

Historic label on Poole Museum's largest saw
Historic label on Poole Museum's largest saw "ROSTROM OF SAWFISH AND TAIL OF WHITE R" (the missing word was possibly rhino).

Threats to marine wildlife in Poole 

Although sawfish aren’t native to the UK, there are many marine creatures that are under threat in our local waters. Here are just some of our species that are listed on the IUCN Red List:

• Basking Shark (Endangered)
• Blue Shark (Near Threatened)
• Thresher shark (Vulnerable)
• Porbeagle (Vulnerable)
• Common skate (Critically Endangered)
• Undulate Ray (Endangered)

Threats to these species include:

• Building development, land reclamation, oil drilling.
• Litter dumped on our beaches, especially plastic that washes into the sea.
• Fishing by-catch (unintentionally caught in nets).

Litter on beach
Litter on Bournemouth beach. Photo Jo Hitchens

How you can help sawfish and other marine life 

The scale of the problem facing marine wildlife might seem huge, but we can all do our bit to help. For example, you can:

• Spread the word about the threat to our marine life
• Always take your litter home with you
• Reduce your use of plastics
• Join a marine conservation organisation and support their campaigns or offer your time as a volunteer.

Marine conservation charities 

The Sawfish Conservation Society works to educate people about sawfish and encourage marine organisations and researchers to work together to save them from extinction. The society leads on promoting International Sawfish Day to increase awareness of sawfish globally.

SharkStuff works on research and education projects to benefit sharks, especially those around the UK and especially in their home county of Dorset.

The Save Our Seas Foundation is dedicated to protecting life in our oceans, especially sharks and rays.

The Marine Conservation Society works to ensure our seas are healthy, pollution free and protected.

Image below credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library ‘Histoire naturelle de Lacépède comprenant les cétacés, les quadrupèdes ovipares, les serpents et les poissons’ by Cuvier and Desmarest 1878-81

A picture paints a thousand words

The haunting and evocative image we’ve used at the top and bottom of this page is from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

It’s from a publication by Cuvier and Desmarest, 1878-81, which translated from French reads: ‘Natural history of  Lacépède: including cetaceans, oviparous quadrupeds, snakes and fish.’

Bernard-Germain de Lacépède was a famous French naturalist in the 18th century. He may also have been the illustrator.