The sawfishes are a near shore family known from tropical and subtropical (including fresh) waters worldwide. They are best characterized by their saw-like snout, which is used to forage for and stun prey. There are two extant genera spanning seven species. (See: Extant Sawfishes.) Fossil sawfishes are best known from their rostral "teeth" (referred herein as spines), either on an isolated basis or still embedded in the calcified rostral cartilage. Oral teeth from these fishes are poorly known.

In all but neonates, which have clearly differentiated "cusps", the functional area of these spines is created by abrasive wear which "sculpts" the dentine to form a crown. (The genus Peyeria, unfamiliar to the author, is excluded from these comments.) These spines grow continuously, and growth bands can normally be seen on the basal (usually unworn) portion of the tooth. The anterior edge of these spines is relatively sharp, but the posterior may vary by species, age and rostral position. In general, elongated rostral spines with sharp or smoothly rounded posterior edges tend to be ascribed to Anoxypristis and channeled ones, to Pristis. Cappetta (1987: 158) shows the rostral spines of Propristis to be short and have a sharp posterior edge.

Cappetta (1987: 157-160) included four fossil genera in the family:

  • Anoxypristis WHITE & MOY-THOMAS 1941 [Middle Eocene - Recent from Europe, Africa & North America],
  • Peyeria WEILER 1935 [Upper Cretaceous of Africa, Cappetta questioned the validity of calling these specimens pristid],
  • Propristis DAMES 1883 [Middle Eocene - Miocene Africa & North America] and
  • Pristis LINCK, 1790 [Lwr Eocene - Recent - Europe, Africa, Asia & North America].

    Anoxypristis WHITE & MOY-THOMAS, 1941

    Cappetta (1987: 157) notes that in living Anoxypristis, the oral teeth are small (1 mm class) and wider than long. The crown is high with a sharp transverse crest and smooth enameloid. The crowns lack central or lateral uvulae, and the flat labial face overhangs the root. Occlusally, the tooth is rhombic in shape. The roots are high and laterally expanded, bear large margino-lingual foramina and the nutrient groove is deep. He described the rostral spines as being dorso-ventrally compressed with anterior & posterior cutting edges. He went on to note that a number of described Pristis rostral "teeth" might possibly be Anoxypristis: imhoffi LERICHE 1832 [Lutetian, Belgium & France], ensidens LEIDY 1877 [Neogene, NJ], ferinus BÖHM 1926 [Eocene, SW Africa], mucrodens WHITE 1926 [Eocene, Nigeria], priemi LERICHE 1932 [Eocene, Paris Basin] and malembeensis DARTEVELLE & CASIER 1943 [Miocene, Zaire].

    Illustrated (Figs. b,c and ) are rostral spines, which represent the Anoxypristis design, from the Potapaco Member of the Nanjemoy (Ypresian, Virginia). Kent (1999: 40) includes similar examples in the Potapaco fauna as A. mucrodens and Anoxypristis sp. Richard Chandler (pers. com. 1999) noted that the smaller spines with convex posterior edges conform well with descriptions of A. mucrodens, and the larger ones with straight edges might be Anoxypristis fajumensis (STROMER 1905). Müller (1999:58) included A. ensidens (LEIDY, 1856) from the Miocene of South Carolina.

    Two of the above specimens (Figs. & ) were recovered from Pungo River tailings (Miocene) at the Lee Creek mine; one (Fig. ) is similar to an illustrated specimen in Purdy et al (2001: 89, fig 8a & b) and compares well with Eocene specimens from Virginia. The associated group (Fig. ) is also from Aurora, but differs in design (compare basal perspectives). Preservation and association strongly suggests that these rostral spines should be included in the Lee Creek fauna

    Pristis LINCK, 1790

    Pristis is a Lower Eocene to Recent genus, and the fossil record has yielded more-or-less complete rostra, isolated rostral spines and rarely, oral teeth. The rostral spines can be quite long, Kent (1999:40-41) reported 80 mm, however, Richard Chandler (pers. com. 1999) indicated that North Carolina specimens exceed 12.5 cm with an even longer example reported from South Carolina. The anterior edge is relatively sharp, and the posterior clearly channeled (concave). The spines of Pristis tend to be proportionately wider (dorso-ventrally) than their Anoxypristis counterparts.

    Cappetta (1987:158) noted that Pristis oral teeth reach 3 mm but are poorly known, even in recent species where morphologies are varied. In P. pristis, the tooth is longer than broad, the crown is globular & rounded, has a transverse crest, strong uvula (almost as long as the rest of the crown) and no lateral uvulae. The root is deeper than wide and the nutrient groove broad with large central foramen. By contrast, those of P. pectinata are small, broad and labio-lingually compressed. The crown is high with a sharp transverse crest and labial uvula (no lateral uvulae). The root is broader than the crown and the lingual face bears a pair of large margino-lingual foramina. The merging of the lobes creates a "roof" over the groove leaving broad & short canal.

    Some of the species included by Cappetta were: P. amblodon COPE 1869 [Middle Eocene, NJ], P. aquitanicus DELEFORTRIE 1872 [Lwr-Mid Miocene, France], P. atlanticus ZBYSZEWSKY 1947 [Mid Miocene Portugal], P. brayi CASIER 1949 [Mid Eocene, Belgium (?syn P. lathami)], P. caheni DARTEVILLE & CASIER 1959 [Miocene Western Africa], P. lathami GALEOTTI 1837 [Lutetian, Lwr-Upr Eocene Anglo-Franco Basin and North Africa], and P. olbrechtsi DARTEVILLE & CASIER 1959 [Mid Eocene Western Africa]

    Reports from North America include:

  • Case (1981:70, pl 9:1a-c) reported Pristis lathami from the Late Eocene of Georgia and erected P. pickeringi (pl 9:2a-c) for a similar spine with an "enameloid sheathing" and ornamented with "fine parallel striations".
  • Ward & Wiest (1990: 85) included P. lathami in the Woodstock Member of the Nanjemoy (Ypresian) and the Piney Point Formation (Lutetian) of Maryland and Virginia.
  • Case (1994:122, pl 15:319-25) reported Pristis sp from the Thanetian (Late Palaeocene) of Mississippi.
  • Purdy (1998:125) reported Pristis sp from the Palaeocene of South Carolina.
  • Kent (1999: 40) included P. lathami in the Potapaco Member (Ypresian) of the Nanjemoy Fm., Virginia.
  • Müller (1999:58-59) noted numerous additional references to Pristis in North America: P. amblodon (Middle Eocene, NJ), P. acquitanicus DELFORTRIE, 1872 (Miocene, FL), P. agassizi GIBBS 1847 (?Eocene, SC), P. lathami (Late Eocene, GA), and P. pickeringi (Late Eocene, GA).
  • Case & Borodin (2000a:10, pl 4:39-42 ) reported P. lathami from the Barnwell Fm. (Late Eocene) of Georgia
  • Case & Borodin (2000b:30, pl 7:61-63) reported P. lathami from the Castle Hayne (Middle Eocene) of North Carolina.
  • Purdy et al (2001: 89, fig 8c & d) included four Lee Creek pristid rostral spines which they listed as Yorktown (unit 1. Pliocene). The "channeled spine" was attributed to the extant species P. cf pectinatus LATHAM, 1794 and the others simply as Pristis sp. Based on the illustrated specimens and description, this last group more likely represents Anoxypristis. Although pristid specimens are found (rare) in Pungo River & Yorktown tailings, there is some question as to whether or not all originated in these deposits or some represent reworked Paleogene material.

    The included images ( Fig. a,d; ; ) depict Pristis rostral spines which are best characterized by their channeled posterior edge. These "teeth" are larger and less compressed than those of Anoxypristis. Of the 16 larger Potapaco rostrals studied and attributed to Pristis, the depth-width ratio averaged 2.2:1 (21-61 mm in length). Pristis rostral spines in excellent condition have medium-strength growth bands when compared to those of Anoxypristis.

    In late 2002, while collecting a stream bank in Summerville, S.C., Michael Farmer uncovered the Eight Sisters, a set of associated (same horizon within 12 inches) pristid spines. Repeated visits never yielded additional specimens, but those included in the accompanying image (Fig. ) are quite stunning. (The larger specimens measure 9 cm.)

    Propristis DAMES, 1883

    According to Cappetta (1987:158), this genus is known from a distinctive and nearly complete rostra as well as fragmentary rostrum and isolated spines. Based on his description and accompanying illustrations, these spines should prove quite distinctive. The spines of Propristis schweinfurthi DAMES 1883, which can reach 3 cm, are flat and roughly as deep as long. The posterior edge is convex as is the upper anterior edge. However, there is a shoulder-like projection 50-60% down the anterior margin, and the basal portion of this edge is concave (where it comes in contact with the next spine). He lists Propristis as reported from the Middle-Upper Eocene and ?Miocene of Africa and the Upper Eocene of Georgia, USA.

    Case (1981:71, pls 3-6) reported Propristis schweinfurthi from the Late Eocene of Georgia and noted its occurrences in the Eocene of Louisiana and Alabama. Kent (1999:41) noted that rostral spines of P. schweinfurthi have been found in the Nanjemoy's Potapaco Bed B; this author has not come across examples of this tooth-design from these sediments. Case & Borodin (2000a:10, pl 4:39-42 ) reported P. schweinfurthi from the Barnwell Fm. (Late Eocene) of Georgia. During the Spring 2008 season, Andrea Stilley recovered a pristid tooth from the Pungo River; although very worn, the barbed margin suggests Propristis despite its elongated crown.

    Neonate "Teeth"

    The Folmer collection included a large number (18) of small (length < 11.0, depth < 5.0 mm) sawfish rostral spines, which at first glance, had appeared to be saw shark (Pristiophorus). When detailed attention was directed to them, it became apparent that they represented very small (neonate) sawfish spines. Compagno (pers. com. 1999) confirmed this speculation and, after viewing an image of the specimens (Fig. a-d), went on to suggest that fetal teeth may be present as well.

    Small rostral spines with a convex posterior basal edge (?Anoxypristis) have not been illustrated (only 4 examples were present, and all lacked enameloid -- deemed to be in poor condition). On the other specimen's posterior edge, the "cusp" was convex and the base, straight (n=8) or concave (n=5). At the time of the writing (1999), the author considered this group to represent a single species (Pristis cf lathami). Those specimens with poorly developed bases probably represent fetal rostrals, and the others being derived from neonates.


    In addition to rostral teeth, complete or fragmentary rostra are found. The calcified cartilage, alveoli and internal channels can be clearly seen in the below image of a Castle Hayne (Middle Eocene) specimen.

    Nanjemoy Discussion (1999)

    Having had the opportunity to review a good number (50+) of pristid rostral spines from Potapaco Bed B, I tender the above Anoxypristis identification with less than full confidence. There are undoubtedly two (or more) pristids in the fauna, and one is Pristis cf lathami. Another taxon is represented by teeth that bear the paleontological identification of Anoxypristis. Part of the difficulty is determining the key characteristics to employ. The "channeled" vs "convex" posterior edge seems simple enough, but the designs bearing convex posteriors when small, tend to become straight (and even weakly concave, Fig. c) as the tooth gets larger. Another specimen (Fig. c) has all the characteristics of Pristis but the posterior face is flat and not concave.

    Compagno (pers. com. 1999) noted that in extant sawfishes, the rostral "teeth" of Pristis tend to be much more deeply rooted than those of Anoxypristis. Applying this insight to the isolated fossil teeth requires a dependence on two unverified conclusions: 1) the portions of the spine imbedded in the socket have no enameloid coating and 2) once emerged, and prior to abrasive wear, the spines bear a thin enameloid covering. Only a few of the studied specimens were in a condition that would reflect these characteristics, and those thought to be Pristis had greater non-enameloid bases than those ascribed to Anoxypristis. Of greater diagnostic value was a coincidental observation; anterior and posterior basal spine edges are roughly parallel in Pristis but flare basally in the other design -- a characteristic that can be recognized in most specimens.

    Although the depth to width ratio of the spine's base is relevant, the length has been deemed of little value. The continually growing rostral spines may be lost or broken during life which could allow a rostrum to bear teeth of significantly different sizes when regrowth occurs.

    It is the author's current opinion that only a single species of Anoxypristis should be attributed to the Potapaco fauna -- differences are attributable to ontogenetic variations, functional wear and/or spine position. Included within this genus are those spines with a relatively sharp posterior edge and those with a nearly straight to gently concave edge. Anoxypristis spines tend to be more dorso-ventrally compressed (2.75:1) than those of Pristis. The growth bands are quite strong on these rostral spines and may appear ornamented when intersected by the apico-basal ridges.

    Selected References

    Cappetta, H., 1987. Chondrichthyes II: Mesozoic and Cenozoic Elasmobranchii. Handbook of Paleoichthyology, 3B. Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart and New York, 193 pp.
    Case, G. 1981.Late Eocene Selachians from South-central Georgia. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 176: 52-79.
    Case, G. 1994. Fossil Fish Remains fron the Late Paleocene Tuscahoma and Early Eocene Bashi Formations of Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 230: 97-138.
    Case. G. and Borodin, P., 2000a. Late Eocene selachians from the Irwinton Sand Member of the Barnwell Formation (Jacksonian), WKA mines, Gordon, Wilkinson County, Georgia. Munchner Geowiss. Abh.. 39:5-6.
    Case. G. and Borodin, P., 2000b. A Middle Eocene Selachin Fauna from the Castle Hayne Limestone Formation of Duplin County, NC, Munchner Geowiss. Abh.. 39:17-32.
    Kent, B. 1999. Sharks from the Fisher/Sullivan Site. In: Weems, R. & Grimsley, G., Early Eocene Vertebrates and Plants from the Fisher/Sullivan Site (Nanjemoy Formation) Stafford County, Virginia. Virginia Division of Mineral Resources, Pub 152: 11-37.
    Müller, A. 1999. Ichthyofaunen aus dem atlantischen Tertiär der USA. Leipziger Geowissenschafteb, Leipzig, 9/10: 1-360.
    Purdy, R. 1998. Chondrichthyan Fishes from the Paleocene of South Carolina. In: Paleobiology of the Williamsburg Formation (Black Mingo Group; Paleocene) of South Carolina, U.S.A., Albert Sanders ed. Transactions of Amer. Philo. Scty., vol 8 (4), pp 122-146.
    Purdy, R., Schneider, V., Appelgate, S., McLellan, J., Meyer, R. & Slaughter, R., 2001. The Neogene Sharks, Rays, and Bony Fishes from Lee Creek Mine, Aurora, North Carolina. In: Geology and Paleontology of the Lee Creek Mine, North Carolina, III. C. E. Ray & D. J. Bohaska eds. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, No 90. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. pp. 71-202.
    Ward, D. & Wiest, R., 1990. A checklist of Palaeocene and Eocene sharks and rays (Chondrichthyes) from the Pamunkey Group, Maryland and Virginia, USA. Tertiary Research, 12(2) p 81-88.