The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed the Caribbean reef shark as Near Threatened; its population has declined off Belize and Cuba from overfishing and exploitation continues in other regions. They are also threatened by the degradation and destruction of their coral reef habitat. Commercial fishing for this species is prohibited in United States waters. They are protected in the Bahamas due to their significance to ecotourism, as well as in a number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) off Brazil and elsewhere. However, enforcement against illegal fishing is lacking in some of these reserves, and many areas in which this species is abundant are not protected.
Measuring up to 3 m (9.8 ft) long, the Caribbean reef shark is one of the largest apex predators in the reef ecosystem, feeding on a variety of fishes and cephalopods. They have been documented resting motionless on the sea bottom or inside caves, unusual behavior for an active-swimming shark. If threatened, it may perform a threat display in which it frequently changes direction and dips its pectoral fins. Like other requiem sharks, it is viviparous with females giving birth to 4–6 young every other year. Caribbean reef sharks are of some importance to fisheries as a source of meat, leather, liver oil, and fishmeal, but recently they have become more valuable as an ecotourist attraction. In the Bahamas and elsewhere, bait is used to attract them to groups of divers in controversial "shark feedings". This species is responsible for a small number of attacks on humans. The shark attacks usually happen in spring and summer.
Caribbean reef sharks are sometimes seen resting motionless on the sea floor or inside caves; it is the first active shark species in which such a behavior was reported. In 1975, Eugenie Clark investigated the famed "sleeping sharks" inside the caves at Isla Mujeres off the Yucatan Peninsula, and determined that the sharks were not actually asleep as their eyes would follow divers. Clark speculated that freshwater upwellings inside the caves might loosen parasites on the sharks and produce an enjoyable "narcotic" effect. If threatened, Caribbean reef sharks sometimes perform a threat display, in which they swim in a short, jerky fashion with frequent changes in direction and repeated, brief (1–1.2 second duration) drops of the pectoral fins. This display is less pronounced than the better-known display of the grey reef shark (C. amblyrhynchos).
Most observed displays by grey reef sharks have been in response to a diver (or submersible) approaching and following it from a few meters behind and above. They also perform the display towards moray eels, and in one instance towards a much larger great hammerhead (which subsequently withdrew). However, they have never been seen performing threat displays towards each other. This suggests the display is primarily a response to potential threats (i.e. predators) rather than competitors. As grey reef sharks are not territorial, they are speculated to be defending a critical volume of "personal space" around themselves. Compared to sharks from French Polynesia or Micronesia, grey reef sharks from the Indian Ocean and western Pacific are not as aggressive and less given to displaying.
The coloration is grey above, sometimes with a bronze sheen, and white below. The entire rear margin of the caudal fin has a distinctive, broad, black band. There are dusky to black tips on the pectoral, pelvic, second dorsal, and anal fins. Individuals from the western Indian Ocean have a narrow, white margin at the tip of the first dorsal fin; this trait is usually absent from Pacific populations. Grey reef sharks that spend time in shallow water eventually darken in color, due to tanning. Most grey reef sharks are less than 1.9 m (6.2 ft) long. The maximum reported length is 2.6 m (8.5 ft) and the maximum reported weight is 33.7 kg (74 lb).
Based on morphological similarities, Jack Garrick in 1982 grouped this species with the bignose shark (C. altimus) and the sandbar shark (C. plumbeus), while Leonard Compagno in 1988 placed it as the sister species of the grey reef shark (C. amblyrhynchos). A phylogenetic analysis based on allozyme data, published by Gavin Naylor in 1992, indicated that the Caribbean reef shark is the sister taxon to a clade formed by the Galapagos shark (C. galapagensis), dusky shark (C. obscurus), oceanic whitetip shark (C. longimanus), and the blue shark (Prionace glauca). However, more work is required to fully resolve the interrelationships within Carcharhinus.
Generally a coastal, shallow-water species, grey reef sharks are mostly found in depths of less than 60 m (200 ft). However, they have been known to dive to 1,000 m (3,300 ft). They are found over continental and insular shelves, preferring the leeward (away from the direction of the current) sides of coral reefs with clear water and rugged topography. They are frequently found near the drop-offs at the outer edges of the reef, particularly near reef channels with strong currents, and less commonly within lagoons. On occasion, this shark may venture several kilometers out into the open ocean.
Off Enewetak, grey reef sharks exhibit different social behaviors on different parts of the reef. Sharks tend to be solitary on shallower reefs and pinnacles. Near reef drop-offs, loose aggregations of five to 20 sharks form in the morning and grow in number throughout the day before dispersing at night. In level areas, sharks form polarized schools (all swimming in the same direction) of around 30 individuals near the sea bottom, arranging themselves parallel to each other or slowly swimming in circles. Most individuals within polarized schools are females, and the formation of these schools has been theorized to relate to mating or pupping.
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Juvenile Caribbean reef sharks are preyed upon by larger sharks such as the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and the bull shark (C. leucas). Few parasites are known for this species; one is a dark variegated leech often seen trailing from its first dorsal fin. Off northern Brazil, juveniles seek out cleaning stations occupied by yellownose gobies (Elacatinus randalli), which clean the sharks of parasites while they lie still on the bottom. Horse-eye jacks (Caranx latus) and bar jacks (Carangoides ruber) routinely school around Caribbean reef sharks.
Grey reef sharks are fast-swimming, agile predators that feed primarily on free-swimming bony fishes and cephalopods. Their aggressive demeanor enables them to dominate many other shark species on the reef, despite their moderate size. Many grey reef sharks have a home range on a specific area of the reef, to which they continually return. However, they are social rather than territorial. During the day, these sharks often form groups of five to 20 individuals near coral reef drop-offs, splitting up in the evening as the sharks begin to hunt. Adult females also form groups in very shallow water, where the higher water temperature may accelerate their growth or that of their unborn young. Like other members of its family, the grey reef shark is viviparous, meaning the mother nourishes her embryos through a placental connection. Litters of one to six pups are born every other year.
There is a variety of biotic reef types, including oyster reefs and sponge reefs, but the most massive and widely distributed are tropical coral reefs. Although corals are major contributors to the framework and bulk material comprising a coral reef; the organisms most responsible for reef growth against the constant assault from ocean waves are calcareous algae, especially, although not entirely, coralline algae.