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 las a Save Our Seas Foundation small grant.
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.
‘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.
Sawfish are very unique creatures, which sometimes poses problems when working with them. The saw of a large sawfish can easily be one the biggest safety hazard you will face during fieldwork. But these animals have another adaptation that has made it difficult to attach tags to them. As the animals often come into shallow waters they have the ability to loosen up their dorsal fins, allowing the fins to fall on the side.
When I worked with captive largetooth sawfish (locally in Australia known as freshwater sawfish) Pristis pristisa decade ago, I realized that in situations that I interpreted as likely stressful for the animals, their two dorsal fins would not stay upright anymore. In captivity these situations included water changes where the water levels in the tanks were first dropped and again raised.
In the wild, when juvenile sawfish venture into shallow waters of 20 cm depth or less, they could easily fall prey to terrestrial predators such as wedgetail eagles, which can reach a wingspan of 2.8m and are commonly encountered in the outback, and near rivers in Northern Australia. This means that it might not be stress, but the low water levels that caused the fins to drop!
The floppy fins pose some difficulties to attaching satellite tags to the dorsal fins of sawfish. The last time that sawfish in Australia, according to our knowledge, were tagged with satellite tags was in 2008 (Stevens et al. 2008). The authors tagged 7 sawfish (5 P. clavataand 2 P. zijsron) with SPOT tags that were bolted to the tip of the dorsal fins of sawfish. These tags are commonly used on sharks, and they can only connect to a satellite and send a location point when the dorsal fin breaks the surface. Additionally one pop-up satellite archival tag was put on another P. clavata. While the PAT tag provided depth data and popped off from the animal after 49 days within a few km of the tagging location, the SPOT tags only provided a handful of locations each (Stevens et al. 2008).
Dr Wueringer holds a towed SPOT-253 tag from Wildlife computers that has been attached to a sawfish. Note the first dorsal fin of the animal falling to the side.
The dwarf sawfish that has been tagged is ready to be released.
Since then, satellite tagging of sawfish has come a long way, and thankfully with the information provided by our American colleagues, our tagging has been more successful. They successfully trialled the methods of attaching towed tags to large smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata (for more info see Carlson et al. 2014, Guttridge et al. 2015, Papastamatiou et al. 2015) and shared their set up with us.
The next challenge for us was to find sawfish that were healthy (i.e. did not have their saws amputated) and large enough to tow the tags. In March 2019 it finally all came together and we were able to deploy two of our towed SPOT (smart position and temperature) tags! The first one was deployed on a 280cm long, and likely sexually mature female, Dwarf sawfish Pristis clavata and within 24 hrs the second tag was deployed on a 300cm long juvenile green sawfish Pristis zijsron.
One tag detached after about 3 months while the other one stopped sending location data 10 months after deployment. However, while the analysis and project is still ongoing, we can already see that the data we have received is amazing.
One of the most important outcomes of the tag deployments is that we were working with a commercial fisher on this expedition, who now knows how to deploy tags for us and is excited to do so. So we hope that the next tags won’t have to wait another 3 years to be deployed, as we all work together to find large sawfish.
This image shows a subset of the raw location fixes that we received from our tagged green sawfish. Each dot represents a location fix. Location fixes can have errors (including land based locations), especially when a tag does not surface long enough to send its data to the satellite.
This blog post was originally written for the Save Our Seas Foundation. you can access the original here.
Carlson, J. K., Gulak, S. J. B., Simpfendorfer, C. A., Grubbs, R. D., Romine, J. G. and Burgess, G. H. (2014). Movement patterns and habitat use of smalltooth sawfish,Pristis pectinata, determined using pop-up satellite archival tags. Aquatic Conserv. Mar. Freshw. Ecosyst.24, 104-117.
Guttridge, T. L., Gulak, S. J., Franks, B. R., Carlson, J. K., Gruber, S. H., Gledhill, K. S., Bond, M. E., Johnson, G. and Grubbs, R. D. (2015). Occurrence and habitat use of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata in the Bahamas. J Fish Biol87, 1322-1341.
Papastamatiou, Y. P., Dean Grubbs, R., Imhoff, J. L., Gulak, S. J. B., Carlson, J. K. and Burgess, G. H. (2015). A subtropical embayment serves as essential habitat for sub-adults and adults of the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish. Global Ecology and Conservation3, 764-775.
Stevens, J. D., McAuley, R. B., Simpfendorfer, C. A. and Pillans, R. D. (2008). Spatial distribution and habitat utilisation of sawfish (Pristis spp) in relation to fishing in northern Australia. 26.
Since 2015, Sharks And Rays Australia is working with sawfish in Queensland. They are globally critically endangered. We spend about 3 months in the field every year, sampling for these animals in some of the most remote sites in Australia. On every field trip we visit a remote school, and when possible we work with the local Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers to increase their knowledge on sawfish and how to look after these animals. We also work with commercial fishermen to create a sustainable model of conservation that also maintains healthy fisheries.
In July 2019, we had a car accident on our way to our field site. Luckily nobody was injured but our amazing expedition vehicle, a Landcruiser Troopcarrier, was destroyed. While the insurance has paid out what they consider the market value to be, it does not even cover half of the cost of a replacement car, let alone fitting out the car to be field ready.
Please help us! Anything counts towards our goal – so remember, no donation is too small!
If you are a sawfish hero or business, from a donation of A$ 750 onwards we will add your sticker on the back of our expedition vehicle, for all of remote Queensland to see. For donations above A$ 3000 you will be allowed to name one of our satellite tagged sawfish and receive a certificate and 3 updates on its whereabouts. For donations of or above A$ 5000 you will be mentioned as a sponsor on our homepage for 2020! If you are representing a business please contact Barbara@saw.fishto check that our values align.
Thanks so much everybody, together we can make a difference!