"Such a library as ours would not only contain books and current periodicals,
but there would be...articles of historic, scientific, and artistic interest."
~ Frank C. Patten, Head Librarian of Rosenberg Library, 1904 - 1934
The Library accepted its first museum piece shortly after it opened in 1904. Since then, thousands of rare and interesting objects from around the world have been added to the collection. Displayed in these pages are the Library's "Treasures of the Month."
April 2013 "Treasure of the Month"
Three smalltooth sawfish rostra in the Rosenberg Library Museum (image courtesy of the Rosenberg Library).
Fish tales like these made great news stories and were fairly common many years ago. Sportsmen and professionals alike pulled in spectacular large game fish, but regretfully, such catches have become much less common. To help celebrate Earth Day and raise awareness of conservation efforts, the Rosenberg Library Museum displayed its collection of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) rostra (singular: rostrum) donated by Julius Puccetti, by the estate of Dr. J.O. Dyer, and by Captain Fredrick Sexson, as the April 2013 Treasure of the Month.
Sawfish are in the same family of marine animals as sharks and rays called Elasmobranchii. They can grow to be eighteen-feet long and reach sexual maturity from anywhere between 10 and 33 years of age. Their most striking feature is their snout, called a “rostrum.” It has saw-like modified tooth structures called denticles (which are actually scales) on each side which help the sawfish hunt. The rostrum works like a metal detector as the sawfish hovers over the ocean floor looking for hidden food. It is also used as a digging tool to unearth buried crustaceans. Sawfish catch their food by waiting for a fish to swim by before slashing at it with the saw, usually stunning or injuring the prey. In addition to hunting, the rostrum is also the sawfish’s primary means of protection from predators. However, the rostrum has proven to also be a liability, as it is easily tangled in nets and has been coveted as a trophy by fishermen for many years. Sawfish liver oil has been used in folk medicine, and like shark fins, sawfish fins are considered a culinary delicacy by some.
Galveston Sawfish circa 1934 — 1939 photograph of Gus Pangarakis with his record
788-pound sawfish, courtesy of seafavorites.com.
Today smalltooth sawfish are found in tropical and sub-tropical areas around Africa, America, Australia, and the Caribbean. During the early 20th century, the species was common from New York all the way to Texas but is now found primarily in Florida. Sawfish can live in both fresh and salt water and often hunt in murky shallow water. This habitat is fraught with many dangers, primarily that of shrimping nets. Little is known about their reproductive habits, but it is estimated they that only mate once every two years and have an average litter of eight offspring. This, coupled with a long juvenile period, makes recovery efforts difficult. All species of sawfish are considered critically endangered, and the smalltooth is no longer found in this part of the Gulf of Mexico.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has conducted much research and developed a recovery plan to help bring sawfish populations to a self-sustaining level. Since there have been several cases of sawfish caught in trawls and nets, the NMFS has developed policies for safely handling, reporting, and releasing accidental catches. They also tag and conduct genetic tests on many specimens to help identify breeding and pupping habitats.
In 2009 the Texas Parks and Wildlife took samples of the rostra in the Rosenberg Library’s museum collection to help create genetic testing tools to support conservation efforts. By having a substantial database of DNA, officials can easily distinguish between the fins of sawfish and sharks, thus cracking down on the illegal fin trade. DNA testing can also give insights into how genetic variations have changed with the sharp decrease in the sawfish population.
A plate sketching of a sawfish (courtesy of NOAA).
The Treasure of the Month is located on the library’s historic second floor near the East Entrance. It can be viewed during regular library hours, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, please contact the Museum Office at 409-763-8854 x 125.