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This huge ancient sawfish had harpoons on its face

David Moscato


Two Onchopristis rostral denticles (nose teeth) and a vertebra. The larger tooth on the right is an impressive 9cm (4in) long. Image: Charlie Underwood

“Sawfish are about as bizarre as they come. And yet, even these uniquely strange fish have even stranger ancient cousins. Meet Onchopristis, a prehistoric animal whose “face saw” was covered in backward-facing barbs like so many little harpoons.

A not-too-distant relative of the true sawfish alive today, Onchopristis lived during the Cretaceous Period, which ended some 65 million years ago. Like their extant kin, these fearsome fish had long, flat noses (rostrums) lined with “teeth” known as denticles.

Modern sawfish use their rostrums as electric-sensitive antennae during searches for prey, and when food is found, those face swords also come in handy for dispatching it. The normal teeth of Onchopristis (the ones in its mouth, where teeth belong) were sharp, but quite small, indicating that these animals also fed on small fish. It’s very possible that they hunted in sawfish-like fashion as well, using their noses to attack, trap and perhaps even sense their prey.

But why the hooked denticles? The obvious answer seems to be that these barbs made stabbing extra effective.

Charlie Underwood of Birkbeck, University of London, notes that the “nose teeth” of Onchopristis don’t show evidence of being used against hard substances like sand or bone, suggesting instead that they may have been wielded in defence, for slashing shoals of fish and during combat with rival males.” (…) READ MORE

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