Gazebo Gazette

Take one look at a sawfish and your mind instinctively thinks: that must be some type of shark. But not so fast. These unique creatures are actually rays. They are shaped much like a shark but with a long rostrum – the elongated “saw” on their snout.

Interesting facts like these and more will be presented in conjunction with International Sawfish Day (ISD) activities co-hosted by the laboratory of University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Nicole Phillips on Oct. 16 at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson and Oct. 17 at Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport.

International Sawfish Day is celebrated each year on October 17th to focus on the need for sawfish conservation and the importance of sawfish in the oceans. Entanglements in fishing nets and changes in habitat are among the many reasons sawfish have been forced onto the endangered species list.

Phillips serves as vice-president of the Sawfish Conservation Society. She explains that International Sawfish Day provides an opportunity to celebrate the highly threatened, but poorly known sawfish.

“Most people have heard of or know something about whale sharks, white sharks and manta rays. Fewer people know that sawfishes exist or that they are extremely threatened,” said Phillips. “There are also still a lot of unknowns regarding their status in many countries and their biology/ecology. On ISD we put the spotlight on sawfish to educate people around the world about these incredibly unique rays.”

Saturday’s events will be held from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, a 300-acre natural landscape that features an open-air amphitheater and 2.5 miles of nature trails. Inside the museum are more than 200 living species in a 100,000-gallon aquarium network with 73,000 square feet of permanent and temporary exhibits, including deer, waterfowl, fossils, and Mississippi’s endangered species.

“MDWFP’s Mississippi Museum of Natural Science is pleased to celebrate International Sawfish day by hosting sawfish researchers from the Phillips Lab at USM and the Sawfish Conservation Society,” said Nicole Smith, Special Events Planner and Naturalist. “This will be a special opportunity for visitors to learn about these ancient, but nearly extinct animals and about our role in helping to conserve them.”

Sunday’s festivities at Mississippi Aquarium will be held from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. The 5.8-acre complex, which opened in August, 2020, incorporates both indoor and outdoor habitats with more than 200 species of animals and 50 species of native plants. The Aquarium’s mission is grounded in three pillars: coastal conservation, education and community participation.

Dr. Lauren Fuller, Education Manager at the Mississippi Aquarium, notes that Aquarium staff are eager to raise awareness about the sawfish and their need for conservation.

“Guests will celebrate International Sawfish Day by enjoying educational activities, while they explore our habitats at Mississippi Aquarium,” said Fuller. “They will learn about local sawfish research from the scientists themselves, including reporting protocols. Kids will also get to participate in fun games and activities.”

There are five species of sawfish and all are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Today, they are primarily found in the United States and Australia. In U.S. waters, Smalltooth Sawfish were once found from Texas to North Carolina, but by the 1980s they were restricted to south and southwest Florida.

Phillips is encouraged by recent verified reports from public/citizen scientists that indicate sawfish are venturing outside southwest Florida, including into the Mississippi Sound and the Chandeleur Islands.

Three years ago, Phillips’ lab conducted extensive environmental DNA surveys for sawfish in the Mississippi Sound and found positive detections around Deer Island, another reported location of sawfish activity. Her team’s research efforts will soon be highlighted in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.

Phillips points out that continuing efforts to raise awareness about the sawfish often leads to positive results.

“One of the things we are often asked once people know about sawfish and their plight is ‘how can I help’ – and sawfish need all the help they can get,” she said.

To learn more about the aforementioned International Sawfish Day activities, call the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science at 601.432.2400 or visit https://www.mdwfp.com/museum.aspx; call Mississippi Aquarium at 228.241.1300 or visit: https://www.msaquarium.org/; contact Dr. Nicole Phillips at n.phillips@usm.edu