Saturday, March 24, 2018

An Interview with the “Sherlock Holmes” of Sawfish

Many of you may be familiar with Matt McDavitt’s fascinating posts on the Sawfish Conservation Society’s Facebook page, while others may know him as the source of knowledge on the cultural role of sawfishes around the globe and the owner of a renowned sawfish rostra collection that is used for research. Either way, if you ever have the chance to talk with Matt, you will understand why some call him the “Sherlock Holmes” of sawfish. At SCS we wanted to find out what started Matt’s drive for sawfish knowledge and what he finds so interesting about our toothy friends.  

What career field are you in? 
          I am a research attorney; basically, I develop legal arguments and I ghost-write for other lawyers nationally (and occasionally internationally), usually regarding probate and trust litigation, as well as environmental law, and admiralty/shipping law.

                  PC: Matt McDavitt, This is Matt standing next to a large Green Sawfish rostrum.

           How/when did you first become interested in sawfishes? 
    I’ve always had a strong interest in sharks ever since early childhood, but my specific fascination with sawfish arose in early adulthood. During my first semester of college I took a course on comparative religions; as part of the class, we studied Aztec religious beliefs and practices. While researching a paper for that unit, I examined copies of the surviving Aztec painted books, and located several symbols that looked to me suspiciously like sawfish saws. I poured through the literature interpreting these beautiful screenfold almanacs, but none of the authors identified the strange spiky objects I’d noticed; apparently no one knew what those objects were!  I was hooked – I spent the next four years learning about Aztec language and culture, trying to find out if they knew of sawfishes and used their saws for some purpose. What I found was that sawfishes were symbols of the earth deity in Aztec thought, specifically linked to warfare, because they, like warriors, carried swords. When the main temple of the Aztecs was excavated in Mexico City, the archaeologists found dozens of sawfish saws in the many offertory caches buried beneath the structure.

                        PC: Matt McDavitt, An example of an Aztec depiction of a sawfish rostrum.

Do you have a favorite sawfish species? Why?

    Probably the Dwarf Sawfish, Pristis clavata – they are still quite mysterious in many ways, and I love their unique glowing, grey-gold color.  Traditionally, we’ve thought Dwarf Sawfish to be confined to the coasts of northern Australia. However, museum specimens reveal that this species formerly occurred in Indonesia, with a range up to at least the northeast coast of India. I’ve found dwarf sawfish saws deposited in Thai temples, strongly suggesting local occurrence in Thailand, and I located naturalist drawings and descriptions from Myanmar apparently depicting this species. I wonder why Dwarf Sawfish and Green Sawfish differ so much in their saw morphology, with the Dwarf Sawfish’s saw proportionally extremely short (as little as 1/5 of the total length), versus the Green Sawfish’s rostrum, which makes up a much larger percentage of the animal’s length (up to 1/3 of the total). Certainly, this disparity between short-sawed Dwarf Sawfish, compared to the lengthy saws borne by Greens reflects some morphological adaptation either to their respective environments or behavior!  Hopefully, we can answer such questions in the future.

    What was the first rostrum in your collection? How did you come across it?
    The first rostrum I acquired was a large, old soot-blackened Smalltooth Sawfish saw that I came across in an antique shop near my college over two decades ago.  It was hanging on a wall of archaic tools and was labeled as a “farming implement”!

PC: Annmarie Fearing, These are a few of the sawfish rostra from the McDavitt Collection.

If you are willing to share your secrets, how do you find all the obscure sawfish information/photos you post on the SCS page? 
    I have a “secret weapon” regarding how I locate sawfish material on the internet, but that will have to wait for another day, so that my methodology is not compromised!

What is the most interesting listing you have come across online for sawfish rostra/fins/etc.?
    I guess that would be the listings I find from the Chinese folk religion practitioners throughout South East Asia. They believe that sawfishes are the children of the Sea Goddess, and thus supernaturally powerful; they believe that the saws of any animals accidentally caught must be deposited at a nearby temple to assuage the dangerous spirit of the sawfish (they also believe that sturgeons are the sole physical form assumed by dragons!).  Practitioners of this religion use sawfish saws essentially as magical swords, with the supernatural power to dispel the hungry ghosts and demons that plague mankind with sickness, misfortune, injurious accidents, and death.  I’ve found similar beliefs from East Africa all the way to coastal China!

Have you ever seen a sawfish in the wild? If so, where were you and when? If not, where would you like to travel in hopes of seeing a sawfish?
    Although I spent a summer on Lake Nicaragua specifically looking for sharks and sawfish, and I once accompanied Colin Simpfendorfer and Tonya Wiley-Lescher on one of their sawfish tagging excursions in southern Florida, I have not yet seen a sawfish in the wild. 

In cultures where multiple sawfish species are present, are the sawfishes as a group culturally important or do different species have different meanings in these cultures?
    From what I’ve found, societies generally make no distinction between sawfish species based on body-form or behavior (i.e., marine versus freshwater animals).

PC: Annmarie Fearing, A painted rostrum from the McDavitt Collection

How many different languages can you say “sawfish” in?
    Probably hundreds; I have recorded terms for sawfish in over 50 Australian Aboriginal languages alone!  Such terms can be useful to determine historical distribution of animal species; in a new project I am working on, I’ve located multiple sawfish place-names in indigenous languages in Australia and in Mexico/Guatemala/Ecuador, likely marking areas where sawfishes were formerly abundant. 

In your opinion, what culture has the most interesting representation/view of sawfishes and can you tell us a little about it?
    There are many beautiful sawfish symbols and metaphors all over the coastal tropics. One of my favorites comes from several Kongo-speaking cultures along the coasts of east central Africa. African societies often traditionally transmitted important values, morals, and observations on human nature via proverbs.  Certain proverbs were also represented in art, to visually convey the lesson they contained. To these Kongo peoples, who had witnessed sawfishes in bays, estuaries, and rivers slashing at fishes, the sawfish’s fondness for striking at the fish that swam within range of its toothy saw was a natural symbol for judicial impartiality.  The proverb translates: “The Sawfish Saw: all fish that went in front, I cut the same!”, conveying the message that justice, must like the sawfish’s hunting technique, be applied impartially, so that one’s status or rank should never affect the outcome of a judicial matter.  It is equivalent to the Western world’s “Lady Justice” symbolism, which also states that justice must be blind and applied equally to all.  Thus, traditionally, a stylized sawfish saw was the symbol of fairness under law, which I think is a beautiful and important concept to be linked with the remarkable sawfish. Perhaps sawfish populations would be in better shape globally if they possessed similar symbolic value in other cultures…

PC: Annmarie Fearing, A painted Narrow Sawfish rostrum from the McDavitt Collection

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