Sawfish safehouse

  • Rays & Skates
Years funded
  • 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018
  • Active
Project type
  • Research

Northern Australia is one of the last strongholds for largetooth sawfish and it is an important home for other endangered species too. Barbara is investigating the role of sawfish within the ecosystem and working with citizen scientists to raise awareness about this critical habitat.

Sawfish safehouse

Barbara Wueringer

Project leader
About the project leader

I grew up in Austria, a land-locked country in the heart of Europe. My parents love travelling and whenever they could take time off, they would pack the Volkswagen Kombi and drive to the sea with my brother and me. We spent all my childhood summers on the Mediterranean coast and one of my first memories of the ocean – I was too young to remember my age – is from Turkey. My mom left an empty, but not clean, soup can overnight in shallow water. When we returned to it the next day there was an octopus inside. What...

PROJECT LOCATION : Cape York peninsula, Australia
Related News
By Barbara Wueringer, 27th February 2020
You saw sawfish!
Hundreds of citizen science sightings reveal opportunities to protect Australia’s four iconic sawfish species New hotspots for green sawfish in Weipa and Karratha. A sawfish nursery in the Brisbane River until about 1950. Evidence that sawfish have not completely disappeared from NSW waters, with a…
Related Blogs
By Barbara Wueringer, 25th November 2020
A rare insight into the habitat requirements of large Aussie sawfish
Sawfish are very unique creatures, which sometimes poses problems when working with them. The saw of a large sawfish can easily be one the biggest safety hazard you will face during fieldwork. But these animals have another adaptation that has made it difficult to attach…
By Barbara Wueringer, 13th August 2019
The cultural importance of sawfish in Australia
Once a year, the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair kicks off in Cairns. Indigenous artists from all over Far North Queensland and Cape York come to Cairns to display their arts. The event grows bigger every year and features so many works on sharks and rays…
By Nico Lubitz and Barbara Wueringer, 1st March 2019
Queensland and its sawfishes
Sawfish are the stuff of legends: Animals that can grow up to 7 m long and have an extended rostrum (the ‘saw’) loaded with teeth. Old newspaper articles have described them as monsters that lurk in our rivers and oceans and are just waiting to…
By Grace McNicholas , 13th February 2019
A student internship
It’s safe to say, each of us were equally as excited to be part of an all-female team representing women in science. Our international research team consisted of myself (Grace), a visiting master’s student from the University of York, UK, conducting a two-month internship with…
By Barbara Wueringer, 1st February 2019
Accelerometer tags on a sawfishes’ saw
We were out in the waters of the Mitchell River, near the Indigenous community of Kowanyama. Every day we would wake at 3am ready for a 4am start of setting nets on the river. After a 7hr sampling session, we’d eat and rest and then…
By Barbara Wueringer, 11th April 2018
Sometimes working with endangered species can be difficult. Personally, I have a lot of respect for my fellow elasmobranch biologists who collect samples and sightings data from fish markets and other locations that bring you close to only body parts of the species you are…
By Barbara Wueringer, 8th December 2017
Outreach, outreach, outreach
Even if your research is extremely meaningful, there is a high chance that most people outside of your field have never heard of it. Even if your study species is extremely endangered, unless it is a cute flagship species (think panda, elephant, rhino), there is…
By Barbara Wueringer, 20th November 2016
The other side of field work
One of the goals of my project was to find out whether sawfishes are, or have the potential to be, a flagship species for the geographical region and ecosystems they are found in. As this first field season for Sharks And Rays Australia (SARA) comes…
By Barbara Wueringer, 26th September 2016
The Daintree
Our search for sawfishes in the waters of the northern parts of Queensland, Australia, certainly takes us into some very special ecosystems. Most are classified as arid bush or grassland, but recently our search took us to the Daintree, a special place that deserves its…
By Barbara Wueringer, 17th June 2016
The saw-less sawfish?
The first time I saw a sawfish, I was mesmerised. The question that sprang instantly to mind – and also the one that I get asked the most – is, what is the saw used for? To say that I found this question fascinating is…
By Barbara Wueringer, 23rd February 2016
Humble beginnings
‘So what do you do?’ ‘I’m a biologist. I work with sawfish.’ ‘Starfish, really? How exciting!’ ‘No, no, SAWFISH! You know, its body looks like a shark’s, but it also has a long saw with teeth down the sides! Do you know what I mean?’…
Project details

Trophic position and ecological roles of euryhaline elasmobranch predators

Key objective

The key objective of this project is to elucidate the trophic positions and ecological roles of six species of estuarine and euryhaline elasmobranchs within their coastal and riverine habitats on the Cape York Peninsula in Australia. We will involve the public in data collection and thus educate them about these animals and ecosystems.

Why is this important

Globally populations of aquatic apex and mesopredators, including elasmobranchs, are declining at alarming rates. This loss of predators and their regulatory effect on lower trophic species can change ecosystems. Therefore, the assessment of elasmobranch community structures is highly important for the creation of management plans.
The remote habitats of Northern Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria are home to very rare, globally threatened and little-understood elasmobranchs. Here, the last global stronghold remains for four species of sawfish – the most threatened elasmobranch family. Other endemic and threatened megafauna are speartooth sharks and freshwater whiprays, which were only described in 2008.
Because of its low human population density, Cape York is relative pristine. But as development in these ecosystems progresses, the area might soon be threatened.
This project’s multi-disciplinary scientific approach will allow collection of baseline data on the biology of the study species in a relatively pristine environment. This information is needed to understand the species’ conservation requirements in Cape York and elsewhere around the globe. Meanwhile, the public outreach component of the project aims to put sawfishes on the international eco-tourism map as flagship species in Cape York. This approach will allow us to develop long-term monitoring programmes for these species and also make their existence in Australia common knowledge.


Euryhaline elasmobranchs (that is, elasmobranchs able to adapt to a wide range of salinities) and freshwater elasmobranchs, including the six study species, are particularly vulnerable to habitat modification and destruction, pollution and overfishing because of their restricted habitat and large body sizes. To achieve tailored protection measures, we need to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the biology and community structures of the six study species. This project aims to provide a holistic understanding of the species’ biology through a multi-disciplinary approach. So far, my line of research has focused on the sensory biology and feeding behaviour of these six species, uncovering many of their adaptations, which define their theoretically optimal niche. The proposed project is an expansion of this work to identify where these species fit in food webs and how they use their microhabitats. This will enable us to identify potential impacts of anthropogenic modifications (e.g., sedimentation changes and salinity changes).

Aims & objectives

The aims and objectives of this project are to:

  • Assess the ecological niches and microhabitats of the study species. Microhabitats will be identified through analysis of spatial habitat use, activity patterns, predatory behaviour and the species’ relationship with abiotic and biotic habitat factors (e.g., visibility, water temperature, depth, salinity, prey abundance).
  • Assess the trophic levels and isotopic niche spaces of the study species within their habitats and in relation to each other and other species. Given their sizes, all could be apex or mesopredators.
  • Identify differences and similarities in sensory and neurological adaptations between the study species. Knowledge of these adaptations will shed light on the ‘theoretically optimal niche’ of these species.
    This research is part of a larger project that is on-going. Overall it aims to:

  • Collect data on the spatial ecology of adult sawfish in North Queensland. Animals will be satellite tagged after they have given birth in estuaries and before they move into the Gulf of Carpentaria. This is vital, as to date virtually nothing is known about sawfish once they become sexually mature
  • Involve local schools, the local community, tourism operators and tourists in the proposed research.