What’s in a Name: The Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata)
Kelcee L. Smith
Lousiana State University
Lousiana State University
Me: *** Shakes head***
Me: “No, I mean SAW-fish.”
Interested Person: “Oh yeah! I see fish all the time.”
Me: ***Face Palm***
As silly as this sounds, this is often the conversation I have with people about Sawfish. At this point in the conversation, I usually pull out my handy Sawfish figurine, which most times bridges the gap in the misunderstanding. Get your own Sawfish figurine here.
Unfortunately for Sawfish, their common name, though accurate, is part of their downfall. I often hear “Sawtooth” or “Sawshark” – which is a real creature (more on that later) – instead of the correct verbiage. And you may say, “Kelcee, this is all just semantics. Who cares?” Well, it is important. We know from research in psychology that if a person is able to identify a particular creature, even an unappealing one, they will be more likely to conserve it (Vincenot et al. 2015). Part of understanding what Sawfish are is knowing how they are different from the Sawshark and Swordfish, and knowing that Sawtooth isn’t even a word (unless the words are separated and are in reference to the individual teeth on the tool we know as a saw).
Diagram of the tool we know as a saw and a close up of an actual saw tooth. Images courtesy of Google.
I’ll admit that the Smalltooth Sawfish common name is quite confusing. The word “tooth” and the word “saw” are inherently the same in some people’s heads (both having to do with cutting) and thus, often come out the mouth the same way too. Not to mention the mental bridge that can be seen with the words if they’re close together: Smalltooth Sawfish can easily become Sawtooth Smallfish. Additionally, the size of the teeth really have nothing to do with identifying the creature. Tooth spacing and saw size are much more important identifiers (Whitty et al., 2014).
So what’s a Smalltooth Sawfish scientist to do?
Firstly, pictures help a lot. And luckily, with today’s technologies, it’s easy to pull up a picture of a Sawfish on your phone if you don’t have your Sawfish figurine handy.
Secondly, I like to stick with one word, usually just “Sawfish,” to keep things simple and easy to remember for someone who has never encountered the creature or its name. This works well for the public as well as other scientists.
Thirdly, be patient and persistent. One great thing about Sawfish is that they’re hard to forget, so once a picture is associated with the appropriate name, ignorance becomes less common. Don’t be afraid to correct someone politely either; people are often too interested to learn to feel threatened by your clarification.
Ultimately, conservation of Sawfish will only be accelerated by understanding and education with consistent efforts. So, if you ever find yourself chatting with your mom about the creatures of the deep, explaining your research to other scientists, or exchanging a great fishing story with another fishermen, keep your Sawfish figurine close and fight the good fight.
A Smalltooth Sawfish (Pristis pectinata) sits on the bottom. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.