Sawfish Conservation in Florida: A Classroom Learning Experience

Sawfish Conservation in Florida: A Classroom Learning Experience

As a passionate advocate for marine conservation, I have had the privilege of working alongside my dedicated students on a project that strikes close to our hearts: the conservation of the smalltooth sawfish in Florida. This journey began unexpectedly when I stumbled upon a sawfish rostrum in an antique store in Fort Myers, which was closing down and clearing out its inventory. Little did I know, this discovery would mark the beginning of an extraordinary scientific endeavor.

Smalltooth sawfish, primarily found from Charlotte Harbor to the Florida Keys, are fascinating creatures. Sadly, they are also critically endangered, making every piece of information about them crucial for their conservation. The rostrum we found – the long, tooth-studded snout of the sawfish – was not just a rare artifact; it held within it a treasure trove of genetic data.

A sawfish rostrum is one of the most distinctive and intriguing anatomical features of the sawfish, a group of rays belonging to the family Pristidae. The rostrum is a long, flattened snout that extends from the front of the sawfish’s head. This unique structure is lined on either side with sharp, tooth-like structures known as rostral teeth.

Functionally, the rostrum serves several purposes in the life of a sawfish. It is primarily used for hunting and feeding. The sawfish swings its rostrum side to side to detect, stun, and capture prey, which often includes fish and crustaceans. The sensory capabilities of the rostrum are also remarkable. Sawfish have electroreceptors known as ampullae of Lorenzini located along the rostrum, enabling them to detect the electrical fields generated by other living organisms, which helps in locating prey even in murky waters or buried in sediments.

In addition to its functional role, the rostrum is a key factor in sawfish conservation efforts. As sawfish populations have become critically endangered due to habitat loss, overfishing, and the curio trade (where rostra are collected as trophies or decorative items), the rostrum has become a crucial element in research and conservation. Scientists can analyze the DNA from tissue samples in the rostrum to study the genetics of sawfish populations, contributing to our understanding of their diversity, distribution, and the impacts of human activities on their survival.

Photo by Gilberto Olimpio:

Realizing the potential of our find, we reached out to Dr. Nicole Phillips and her team at the University of Southern Mississippi. Under their guidance, we sent the tissue samples from the rostrum for DNA extraction and analysis. This process is vital as it offers insights into the historical genetic diversity of these magnificent creatures. By studying the DNA from preserved rostra, scientists like Dr. Phillips can compare current genetic diversity with that of the past, thereby shaping effective conservation strategies.

My students were integral to this project. Their enthusiasm and commitment to learning and contributing to marine conservation have been heartwarming. Watching them engage with the process, from the discovery of the rostrum to understanding its significance in sawfish conservation, was an enriching experience for all of us. Moments like these underscore the importance of hands-on learning and its profound impact on young minds.

If our story has inspired you, or if you know the location of a sawfish rostrum, your contribution can make a significant difference. Please reach out to 1-844-4-SAWFISH. Your involvement can help preserve these extraordinary creatures and offer invaluable support to conservation efforts.

Together, with each discovery and each shared piece of knowledge, we can make a difference in the lives of these unique animals. The journey with my students in sawfish conservation has been more than just an educational experience; it has been a journey of hope and dedication toward a better future for our marine life.

References and Further Reading

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (n.d.). Sawfish. Retrieved November 25, 2023, from

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (n.d.). Smalltooth sawfish. Retrieved November 25, 2023, from

Save Our Seas Foundation. (n.d.). Sawfish gene pool. Retrieved November 25, 2023, from

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