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Record-Breaking 16-Foot-Long Sawfish Washes Ashore in the Florida Keys

In a rare occurrence, a second 12-foot-long juvenile sawfish was found dead on a different beach in the state during the same week

The female sawfish (pictured) is 16 feet long and estimated to weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds. It's the longest smalltooth sawfish ever measured by scientists. (FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute via Facebook)
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A record-breaking 16-foot-long female smalltooth sawfish washed ashore Cudjoe Key in Florida last week, reports Stephanie Pappas for Live Science. Another female sawfish was found near Marvin Key and measured 12 feet, reports Gwen Filosa for the Miami Herald.

While both were found in the same week, they were located far enough apart that officials suspect the deaths are coincidental. Neither sawfish showed signs of injuries or other apparent death indications. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is currently awaiting on necropsy results of the 12-foot-long fish, the Miami Herald reports.

The smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) is a distinct species of rays known for their long, flat snouts edged with sharp teeth used to detect and hunt prey. In the United States, the sawfish is a federally protected species found off the southwest coast of Florida. Outside of the U.S., confirmed sightings of the fish have been reported in the Bahamas and Sierra Leone.

The deaths grant scientists a rare opportunity to examine the relatively unstudied species. Gregg Poulakis, a fish biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, estimates that his team will hear about 20 to 30 sightings from fishers or boaters each month, he tells Live Science. He says about five to six sawfish carcasses wash up each year.

"Although it's a sad occurrence when a big animal like that dies, from a scientific standpoint, we knew we could learn a lot from it. That makes us feel a little bit better about having lost such a big female," said Gregg Poulakis, a fish biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to Live Science.

Although deceased, the fish carcasses are in remarkable condition and hold crucial information that scientists can use to learn more about them. (Even partial remains help scientists learn about the species, Poulakis tells Live Science.) Researchers are studying the reproductive tracts of both fish to learn about when they reach sexual maturity. They also plan to collect DNA samples from both specimen to determine maternal lineage and compare it to "other sawfish that have been studied throughout Florida," according to a Facebook post from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

Local officials helped pull the fishes to shore so tissue samples and measurements could be taken for further study. The 12-foot-long female was a juvenile with immature eggs in her ovaries, while the 16-foot female was a mature adult with eggs the size of softballs. The 16-foot-long female is estimated to weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds, while the 12-foot-long juvenile female is estimated to weigh 400 and 500 pounds, according to the Facebook post.

Scientists also plan to investigate the age of both individuals, which is currently unknown. Similar to identifying a tree's age through its rings, the rays' vertebrae form a growth line every year, and researchers can age a ray by counting each growth line, reports Live Science.

"We're excited to see how old the 16-footer that we got this week is," Poulakis told Live Science "My guess is that she is older than [14]."

Before its placement onto the Endangered Species List in 2003, little was known about the elasmobranch, a subclass of fish comprised of sharks, rays, and skates.

"Basically, any question you could ask — 'How big do they get?; what kind of habitat do they need?; how long do they live' — we just didn't have an answer," Poulakis tells Live Science.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA) has implemented recovery strategies to protect the sawfish from habitat destruction and bycatch.

About Elizabeth Gamillo
Elizabeth Gamillo

Elizabeth Gamillo is a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.

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