Largetooth Sawfish (Freshwater Sawfish), Pristis pristis (Linnaeus 1758)

Other Names: Common Sawfish, Freshwater Saw Fish, Freshwater Sawfish, Leichhardts Sawfish, Leichhardt's Sawfish, Smalltooth Sawfish, Small-toothed Sawfish, Wide Sawfish

A Freshwater Sawfish, Pristis pristis, in the Daly River, Northern Territory. Source: Richard Pillans. License: All rights reserved


The largest freshwater fish in Australia, found in marine, estuarine and freshwater habitats in northern Australia - up to 400 kilometres inland. The species has previously been referred to as Pristis microdon. The species is protected throughout Australia.

Identifying features: Gill openings on the underside; rostrum with a relatively broad base; rostral teeth evenly-spaced, extnding almost to rostral base; origin of first dorsal fin well before origin pelvic fins; lower lobe of caudal fin small, distinct, less than half length of upper lobe; yellowish to dark-brown above, underside white; outer fin margins yellowish-brown.

Video of the rescue of Freshwater Sawfish (aka Largetooth Sawfish) - Traditional Owners help scientists rescue critically endangered sawfish from a drying waterhole in the Daly River catchment, Northern Territory.

Video of Cairns Marine collecting juvenile Largetooth Sawfish in the Gulf of Carpentaria for conservation and display in public aquaria.

Cite this page as:
Gomon, M.F. & Bray, D.J. 2019, Pristis pristis in Fishes of Australia, accessed 03 Dec 2023,

Largetooth Sawfish (Freshwater Sawfish), Pristis pristis (Linnaeus 1758)

More Info


Historically widespread in marine, estuarine and freshwater waters of the Eastern Atlantic, Western Atlantic, Eastern Pacific and Indo-West Pacific - with 4 genetically distinct populations. The Freshwater Sawfish is now extinct or severely depleted in numbers in much of its former range.

In Australia, the species is known from  80 Mile Beach in Western Australia to Princess Charlotte Bay on the east coast of Queensland, with a single anomalous catch from Cape Naturaliste in southwestern Western Australia in 2007 (Phillips 2012).  In the Fitzroy River system of northern Western Australia, the species has been recorded more than 400 km from the sea.

The Freshwater Sawfish is a euryhaline species, able to move through salinity gradients. It inhabits inshore coastal waters, estuaries, river mouths lagoons, and large rivers. Thorburn et al. (2004) suggest that the Freshwater Sawfish is better described as a ‘marine opportunist’, and not as a ‘freshwater’ species. Juveniles occur in freshwaters, and upon maturation individuals may move out of rivers, or alternatively attain maturity outside rivers.


Body elongate shark-like; snout highly modified into a flattened blade-like structure with 18-23 pairs of enlarged lateral tooth-like denticles (rostral teeth); rostral teeth slender with a groove along their posterior margins; teeth start near rostral base and are evenly spaced; rostrum broad, not tapering distally; five gill slits situated ventrally on the head; nostrils broad with large nasal flaps; barbels are absent; numerous very small, rounded-oval teeth in pavement pattern forming bands along jaws. Covered by small tooth-like dermal denticles. Two tall, pointed dorsal fins, first originating well forward of pelvic fin origin; pelvic fin origin closer to level of first dorsal fin insertion than to its origin; pectoral fins distinctly detached from head with broad bases, broadly triangular; caudal fin with distinct lower lobe, posterior margin of caudal fin concave.


To a maximum total length (TL) of 700 cm, usually to 250 cm TL. Pups are born at 70-90 cm TL.


Yellowish to greyish, brown or olive above, white on the underside; outer fin margins yellowish brown.


The top and underside of the saw-like snout or rostrum is covered in thousands of electrosensory ampullae of Lorenzini and several major branches of the motion sensory lateral line. These electroreceptors enable the sawfish to detect the weak electric fields of prey such as as molluscs, crustaceans and slow-moving fishes living on the bottom and in the water column. Once prey is detected, the sawfish sweeps its rostrum sideways to stun its prey.

Sawfish - pups and small juveniles - are preyed upon by Bull Sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), estuarine crocodiles and the Australian freshwater crocodile.


Sawfish are aplacental viviparous (ovoviviparous) meaning that the eggs hatch within the body of the female who gives birth to 1-12 young in estuaries. Pups migrate upstream and spend their first 4-5 years in freshwater river systems - as far as 400 kms upstream in the Fitzroy River, Western Australia. When approaching maturity, subadults migrate back downstream to coastal waters, and mature at about 7 years of age. Individuals may live to about 40 years of age.


Although protected and not targeted commercially throughout Australia, Freshwater Sawfish are taken as incidental bycatch in gillnet and trawl fisheries in northern Australian.


IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Critically Endangered

CITES Listed: Appendix I

EPBC Act Australia: Vulnerable

Northern Territory: Vulnerable

Western Australia: Near Threatened

Protected throughout Australia. The species has suffered populations declines throughout its range worldwide, and is locally extinct in some areas.It is characterised by extreme and continued vulnerability to fisheries (evidenced by serious declines in virtually all known populations), compounded by habitat loss and degradation over most of its range. Remaining populations are now small, fragmented.


Faria et al. (2013) demonstrated that there was little or no morphological or genetic differences between Pristis pristisP. perotetti and P. microdon. As Pristis pristis is the oldest name, it is the accepted name for the Largetooth Sawfish.

Species Citation

Squalus pristis Linnaeus, 1758, Systema Naturae Tom.1 X: 235. Type locality: Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean & western Atlantic.


Gomon, M.F. & Bray, D.J. 2019


Atlas of Living Australia

Largetooth Sawfish (Freshwater Sawfish), Pristis pristis (Linnaeus 1758)


Allen, G.R. 1982. Inland Fishes of Western Australia. Perth : Western Australian Museum 86 pp. 6 figs 20 pls. (as Pristis microdon)

Allen, G.R. 1997. Marine Fishes of Tropical Australia and South-east Asia. Perth : Western Australian Museum 292 pp. 106 pls. (as Pristis microdon)

Allen, G.R., Midgley, S.H. & Allen, M. 2002. Field Guide to the Freshwater Fishes of Australia. Perth : Western Australian Museum 394 pp. (as Pristis microdon)

Bradney, D.R., Davidson, A., Evans, S.P., Wueringer, B.E., Morgan, D.L. and Clausen, P.D. (2017) Sawfishes stealth revealed using computational fluid dynamics. Journal of Fish Biology 90(4): 1584-1596.  Abstract

Compagno, L.J.V. & Last, P.R. 1999. Families Pristidae, Rhinidae, Rhinobatidae, Platyrhinidae. pp. 1410-1432 in Carpenter, K.E. & Niem, V.H. (eds). The Living Marine Resources of the Western Central Pacific. FAO Species Identification Guide for Fisheries Purposes. Rome : FAO Vol. 3 pp. 1397-2068. (as Pristis microdon)

Daley, R.K., Stevens, J.D., Last, P.R. & Yearsley, G.K. 2002. Field Guide to Australian Sharks & Rays. Hobart : CSIRO Marine Research 84 pp. (as Pristis microdon)

Dulvy, N.K., Davidson, L.N.K., Kyne, P.M., Simpfendorfer, C.A., Harrison, L.R., Carlson, J.K. & Fordham, S.V. 2016. Ghosts of the coast: global extinction risk and conservation of sawfishes. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 26: 134-153. DOI: 10.1002/aqc.2525 Open access

Faria, V. 2007. Taxonomic review, phylogeny, and geographical population structure of the sawfishes (Chondrichthyes, Pristiformes). PhD Dissertation, Iowa State University, USA

Faria, V.V., McDavitt, M.T. Charvet, P., Wiley, T.R., Simpfendorfer, C.A. & Naylor, G.J.P. 2012. Species delineation and global population structure of critically endangered sawfishes (Pristidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 167: 136-164 DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.2012.00872x 

Feutry, P., Kyne, P.M., Pillans, R.D., Chen, X., Marthick, J.R., Morgan, D.L. & Grewe, P.M. 2015. Whole mitogenome sequencing refines population structure of the Critically Endangered sawfish Pristis pristis. Marine Ecology Progress Series 533: 237–244. DOI: Open access

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Harrison, L.R. & Dulvy, N.K. (eds). 2014. Sawfish: A Global Strategy for Conservation. IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Shark Specialist Group, Vancouver, Canada, 116 pp.

Kyne, P.M., Carlson, J. & Smith, K. 2013. Pristis pristis (errata version published in 2019). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2013: e.T18584848A141788242. Downloaded on 10 December 2019.

Lake, J.S. 1978. Australian Freshwater Fishes. Melbourne : Thomas Nelson 160 pp. 140 figs.

Last, P.R. & Stevens, J.D. 1994. Sharks and Rays of Australia. Canberra : CSIRO Australia 513 pp. 84 pls. (as Pristis microdon)

Last, P.R. & Stevens, J.D. 2009. Sharks and Rays of Australia. Collingwood : CSIRO Publishing Australia 2, 550 pp. (as Pristis microdon)

Last, P.R., White, W.T. & Naylor, G.J.P. 2016. 8. Sawfishes. Family Pristidae, pp. 58-64. In: Last, P.R., White, W.T., Carvalho, M.R. de, Séret, B., Stehmann, M.F.W. & Naylor, G.J.P. (eds.) Rays of the World. Clayton South, Victoria : CSIRO Publishing 790 pp.

Latham, J. 1794. An essay on the various species of sawfish. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 2(25): 273-282 pls 26-27 (as Pristis microdon)

Lear, K.O., Gleiss, A.C., Whitty, J.M. et al. 2019. Recruitment of a critically endangered sawfish into a riverine nursery depends on natural flow regimes. Scientific Reports 9(17071), open access

Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema Naturae per Regna tria Naturae, secundem Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, cum Characteribus, Differentis, Synonymis, Locis. Tom.1 Editio decima, reformata. Holmiae : Laurentii Salvii 824 pp.

Merrick, J.R. & Schmida, G.E. 1984. Australian Freshwater Fishes Biology and Management. Sydney : J.R. Merrick 409 pp. figs 280 col. figs.

Morgan, D.L., Allen, M.G., Bedford, P., & Horstman, M. 2004. Fish fauna of the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia – including the Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Ngarinyin, Nyikina and Walmajarri Aboriginal names. Records of the Western Australian Museum 22: 147-161.

Morgan, D.L., Somaweera, R., Gleiss, A.C., Beatty, S.J. & Whitty, J.M. 2017. An upstream migration fought with danger: freshwater sawfish fending off sharks and crocodiles. Ecology 98: 1465–1467. doi:10.1002/ecy.1737 Open access

Morgan, D.L., Whitty, J.M., Phillips, N.M., Thorburn, D.C., Chaplin, J.A. & McAuley, R. 2011. North-western Australia as a hotspot for endangered elasmobranchs with particular reference to sawfishes and the Northern River Shark. Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia 94: 345-358.

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Phillips, N.M., Chaplin, J.A., Morgan, D.L. & Peverell, S.C. 2011. Population genetic structure and genetic diversity of three critically endangered Pristis sawfishes in Australian waters. Marine Biology 158: 903-915.

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Quick Facts

CAAB Code:37025003

Conservation:IUCN Critically Endangered; EPBC Act Vulnerable; CITES Listed

Depth:0-40 m (usually <10 m)

Habitat:Freshwater, estuarine, marine

Max Size:700 cm TL

Species Image Gallery

Species Maps

CAAB distribution map