Sawfishes belong to a group of fishes called elasmobranchs that includes sharks, rays, and skates. All Elasmobranchs have a skeleton made of cartilage as opposed to a skeleton made of bone like other fishes such as red drum, snook, or tarpon. Sawfishes are actually a type of ray. Sawfishes all fit into one family known as Pristidae, derived from a Greek term meaning "saw".

Sawfishes possess the characteristic long, flattened, toothed saw, a flattened head and trunk, and a shark-like appearance and manner of swimming. Once lost, the teeth along the saw are not replaced. Sawfishes worldwide are poorly studied and no one knows for sure the number of living species, but there are an estimated four to seven species worldwide. The two species that exist in the western side of the Atlantic Ocean are the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) and the largetooth sawfish (Pristis perotteti). The two species can look very similar, but can be distinguished by counting the saw teeth on either side of the saw.

The smalltooth sawfish usually has 23-34 teeth per side and the largetooth sawfish usually has 17-22 teeth per side. The ranges of both species have been reported to include Florida, but only three specimens of the largetooth sawfish have ever been reported from Florida. The typical range of the largetooth sawfish is further south and west of the state. The smalltooth sawfish is by far the most often reported species of sawfish on both coasts of Florida. Hundreds of specimens have historically been reported throughout Florida, but in the last decade or so most have been reported from southwest Florida.