Dissection of a sawfish

Dissection of a sawfish

Dissecting for a deeper understanding

My SARA internship experience

Madison Baker (The University of Adelaide)

As part of my science internship with Sharks And Rays Australia (SARA), I had the unique opportunity to assist with the dissection of a juvenile narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidata).

Working with a highly threatened and elusive species, you don’t always get the chance to develop a deeper understanding of their biology. Therefore, having the opportunity to perform a dissection on a narrow sawfish was extraordinary and a once in a lifetime experience.

The dissection began with a sense of anticipation in the air. The team, composed of myself, SARA Principal Scientist Dr Barbara Wueringer and SARA Director Mark Tozer, meticulously prepared for the procedure. The juvenile narrow sawfish, one of the eight specimens graciously donated to SARA, lay before us, offering a rare glimpse into the intricacies of its anatomy.

Our primary goal of this dissection was not only to collect samples (i.e. DNA, gut content, morphometrics) for research, but use this opportunity to connect with the general public and educate them. Check out the live video on the SARA Facebook!

Exciting external findings

Before a scalpel was even lifted, we examined the sawfish’s extraordinary external features first. The rostrum, lined with sensory pores known as ampullae of Lorenzini, allows the sawfish to detect the electric fields produced by its prey. As we explored further, we documented the size and arrangement of the teeth, shedding light on the species’ feeding habits and ecological role. Estimated to be less than a year old, the rostral teeth of the specimen were noted to be still hook-shaped. The true purpose of this ‘notching’ still evades scientists today.

We then worked our way along the head and body towards the tail of the sawfish. Noted were two large eyes – that can sink into its head for protection, five-pairs of gill slits that lay underneath, two spiracles situated behind the eyes – that allow the sawfish to respire without inhaling sediment, two large flat pectoral fins and anal fins – perfect for sitting on the bottom, two dorsal fins of equal height, and a forked tail.

The sawfish was also noted to be covered in a mucous layer which made it slimy to touch. Fishermen sometimes refer to this species as the ‘slimy sawfish’. Barbara explained this helps protect them from diseases and wound infections.

Dissecting deeper

With surgical precision, we then carefully opened up the specimen to reveal the complex structures that lay beneath. We identified a large oily liver with an unusual green abscess (this was biopsied), a huge hook-shaped stomach, a spiral-valved intestine (how cool!), spleen, pancreas, gall bladder and rectal gland – an special organ for salt excretion.

We inspected the stomach to see what this juvenile narrow sawfish had been eating and to our surprise, fish eye lenses were found. But we would have to wait on the lab results to know the species and anything else it had been eating.

The most challenging part of this dissection was trying to identify the sex of this individual. As this specimen was very young, its reproductive organs were underdeveloped, so it was difficult to discern testes from ovaries. However, after some probing, we concluded that this young individual was in fact female.

My takeaways from this experience

This dissection not only contributed valuable data to ongoing SARA research but also provided an immersive educational experience for myself and the public. It emphasized the importance of conservation efforts to protect these vulnerable creatures, whose populations are highly threatened.

As I reflect on this science internship, this narrow sawfish dissection stands out as a highlight. It serves as a reminder of the endless wonders that the natural world holds and the crucial role we play as scientists in unravelling its mysteries.

Here’s to a super awesome and unique internship experience!

Snapshots of stewardship: a multi-day training in Coen, QLD

Snapshots of stewardship: a multi-day training in Coen, QLD

by Veronika Biskis

Continuing our work with the Lama Lama Land and Sea Rangers, SARA was invited to provide training in sawfish monitoring for the Rangers and the local community in Coen, QLD in July. The entire journey was documented by the talented Don Silcock, who was not only capturing the trip, but delving into untold stories from Elders in the region.

The trip to Coen was a first for us – travel via plane! The SARA team is well versed in the two day trek up from Cairns in the troop-carrier, but with funding from the Engaging Science Grant received this year, we were able to hitch a ride on an 8-seater Cessna. Unsurprisingly, the Cape looks just as incredible from above, and is always the reminder for just how remote our work is.

Figure 1: (L) The PDR from the Hinterland Plane (R) Nikki and Barbara at the Coen Airport

Alison Liddy of the Lama Lama Land and Sea Rangers organised a workshop with the Junior Rangers for the first evening. Dr Wueringer presented to some new and familiar faces on fundamental principles such as food webs, healthy ecosystems, as well as hands on techniques in field science. We are extremely lucky for the opportunity to talk about traditional and modern methods in caring for Country with the next generation of local scientists.

Figure 2: The junior rangers mastering sawfish ID and how to tag sawfish. 

The second day was aimed at citizen scientists, recreational fishers, and the Rangers. Participants learned about sawfish biology, survey methods, and tagging. After the event, Elders shared stories of growing up in Coen and seeing sawfish in their youth. These rare examples of Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK) create real context in understanding changing environments. Don Silcock documented this connection to Country throughout. In the afternoon, we headed to the famous Exchange Hotel, where locals continued to share their past experiences with sawfish.

Figure 3: (L) Barbara presents to the community in Coen. (R) Revising sawfish ID with Lama Lama Land and Sea rangers. 

This whirlwind trip to Coen, Queensland, marked another milestone in our ongoing effort to involve the entire community in sawfish conservation, whether that’s kids, Traditional Owners, visiting fishers, the Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program or Queensland Parks. Don’s photographs captured not only the educational aspects of the trip but the cultural significance, helping to build a visual narrative that will resonate with audiences beyond the Cape. This trip would not have been logistically possible without funding from grants like Engaging Science, allowing for citizen science and collaboration between organisations from across the state.

Figure 4: (L) Barbara, Nikki and Alison speak with Brian Ross. (R) from left to right: Lama lama ranger, Alison Liddy, Barbara Wueringer, Nikki Biskis, Don Silcock

Spotters t-shirts

What are sawfish spotters?

Have you noticed some very cool looking people recently, wearing the SARA Sawfish Spotter’s t-shirts?

We are very proud of these t-shirts, which feature a drawing by the amazing Julius Csotonyi. The t-shirt raises awareness for the submission of sawfish sightings (historical and recent) to the SARA sawfish sightings campaign. YOU can submit your sighting here.

If you have received your t-shirt we would love you to tag us on social media @SharksAndRaysAU and use the #sawfishspotters to raise awareness for our sightings campaign and your awesomeness! Thank you for contributing to the conservation of these amazing critters!

Wearing a Sawfish Spotter t-shirt does not give permission to target sawfish in Australia, for sighting submissions or otherwise. Please remember, sawfish are endangered and protected under both state and federal legislations and there are steep fines for targeting these fish without a permit.

This t-shirt campaign is funded by our Queensland Government Office of the Chief Scientist Citizen Science grant, as well as a Save Our Seas Foundation small grant.


The art of Rod Lucas

The art of Rod Lucas

In March 2022, i (Barbara) visited Karumba for a Queensland Fisheries meeting. During a break at the meeting, Rod Lucas popped in! I had never actually met him, but was aware of him and his sawfish art for a long time.

In 2019, I ran a field trip to Karumba, and as part of it we asked locals to allow us to sample their sawfish saws. This was the first time I came across one of Rod’s saw casts. As it was painted, it took us a few minutes to figure out what we were looking at.

Rod’s casts are for sale in the Les Wilson Barramundi Discovery Centre in Karumba. When I visited him there to see some more of his artworks, he had a surprise for me, a cast that he made as a gift for Sharks And Rays Australia. It is absolutely stunning! Check out the rostral teeth, he left them transparent, so that it’s visible that this is not a real sawfish saw.

Rod’s creativity allows this important part of both Indigenous and also North Queensland culture, the display of sawfish saws, to continue into the future, without posing any harm to endangered species.









Link to ABC article on Rod Lucas’ work: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-15/karumba-artist-using-his-work-to-fight-for-endangered-sawfish/100828104

Rod Lucas Gallery https://www.rodlucasgallery.com.au/

Dr Wueringer from SARA with artist Rod Lucas and the amazing saw he made for SARA.

SawSearch project update

SawSearch project update

By Annmarie Fearing, University of Mississippi

‘SawSearch’ is a collective research effort led by Dr. Nicole Phillips and Annmarie Fearing from the University of Southern Mississippi and Kelcee Smith from Louisiana State University. This project would not be possible without our collaborators from around the world, dedicated volunteers, and funding from Save Our Seas Foundation, Shark Conservation Fund, and The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation. Thank you for being a part of our ‘SawSearch’ project and supporting our efforts to collect tissue samples from historic sawfish specimens. With your help we have collected over 1,500 tissue samples from all five species of sawfish from over 150 public and private natural history collections. Specimens originate from as far back as the 1600’s and span from origins around the globe such as West Africa (read more here), Nicaragua, Panama, and Bangladesh, among others. As we continue to collect and process these important samples, we wanted to provide you with a brief update.

 Historical Smalltooth Sawfish tissue being digested during DNA extraction. Image by Annmarie Fearing. 


We experienced some setbacks due to COVID-19, but we are now back in the lab hard at work. We have extracted DNA from all Largetooth, Green, and Smalltooth Sawfish tissue samples and are currently sequencing and genotyping the DNA.
Thanks to your participation in this research, we have DNA sequence information from historic sawfish populations that would otherwise not be possible, such as the sequence shown below from a Green Sawfish saw collected from the Arabian Sea in 1961. You can read about our preliminary findings on the genetic diversity in Largetooth Sawfish in our blogs posted on our Save Our Seas Foundation project page.
The ‘SawSearch’ team has shared preliminary data from this research via public talks and scientific conferences. In 2019, Annmarie presented preliminary genetic data for Largetooth Sawfish at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Utah, USA and Kelcee shared progress on her research on Smalltooth Sawfish at the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) meeting in Illinois, USA. In February 2021, Nicole participated in a public presentation on sawfish for the
Wildlife in the Red program organized by Wessex Museums, which can be viewed here. Additionally, Annmarie will be giving a talk at the 2022 SPNHC meeting in Scotland and may see some of you there.

For the remainder of the year, we will be dedicated to wrapping up the analyses of these data for publications, but we will still be on the search for more saws. We are currently working to gather additional samples from Papua New Guinea and Brazil, which would allow us to address uncertainties regarding the status of sawfish in these locations.

As we continue to collect more samples and expand our research we will be sure and keep you all updated. Thank you again for being a part of ‘SawSearch’!

Featured image caption: DNA sequence (above) from a Green Sawfish saw (below) from a sawfish captured at Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea in 1961.

Annmarie Fearing (left), Nicole Phillips (middle left), Cat Gordon (middle right), and Kelcee Smith (right). Image by Annmarie Fearing.