The Sawfish Conservation Society aims to inform and educate the public about the threatened sawfishes found across the globe, and to encourage cooperation and discussion among researchers, fishers and other marine stakeholders, in order to facilitate research and conservation efforts for sawfishes worldwide.
The SCS blog provides a forum in which sawfish researchers and conservationists can share news and stories about their research activities and their findings.
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.
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.
McDavitt, This is Matt standing next to a large Green Sawfish rostrum.
How/when did you first become
interested in sawfishes?
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?
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
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?
what I’ve found, societies generally make no distinction between sawfish
species based on body-form or behavior (i.e., marine versus freshwater
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
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