Dutch ichthyologist Pieter Bleeker first described the grey reef shark in 1856 as Carcharias (Prionodon) amblyrhynchos, in the scientific journal Natuurkundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch-Indië. Later authors moved this species to the genus Carcharhinus. The type specimen was a 1.5 metres (4.9 ft)-long female from the Java Sea. Other common names used for this shark around the world include black-vee whaler, bronze whaler, Fowler's whaler shark, graceful shark, graceful whaler shark, grey shark, grey whaler shark, longnose blacktail shark, school shark, and shortnose blacktail shark. Some of these names are also applied to other species.
Grey reef sharks are often curious about divers when they first enter the water and may approach quite closely, though they lose interest on repeat dives. They can become dangerous in the presence of food, and tend to be more aggressive if encountered in open water rather than on the reef. There have been several known attacks on spearfishers, possibly by mistake, when the shark struck at the speared fish close to the diver. This species will also attack if pursued or cornered, and divers should immediately retreat (slowly and always facing the shark) if it begins to perform a threat display. Photographing the display should not be attempted, as the flash from a camera is known to have incited at least one attack. Although of modest size, they are capable of inflicting significant damage: during one study of the threat display, a grey reef shark attacked the researchers' submersible multiple times, leaving tooth marks in the plastic windows and biting off one of the propellers. The shark consistently launched its attacks from a distance of 6 m (20 ft), which it was able to cover in a third of a second. As of 2008, the International Shark Attack File listed seven unprovoked and six provoked attacks (none of them fatal) attributable to this species.
The Caribbean reef shark infrequently attacks humans. In general, a shark attack on a human is behaviorally similar to an attack upon natural prey. A human is more susceptible to being attacked if the shark is cornered and feels that there is no escape route. In situations like these, the shark may rake the victim during the attack resulting in lacerations.
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.
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).
A profitable ecotourism industry has arisen around this species involving organized "shark feeds", in which groups of reef sharks are attracted to divers using bait. Some US$6,000,000 is spent annually on shark viewing in the Bahamas, where at some sites a single living Caribbean reef shark has a value between US$13,000 and US$40,000 (compared to a one-time value of US$50–60 for a dead shark). This practice has drawn controversy, as opponents argue that the sharks may learn to associate humans with food, increasing the chances of a shark attack, and that the removal of reef fishes for bait may damage the local ecosystem. Conversely, proponents maintain that shark feeds contribute to conservation by incentivizing the protection of sharks and educating people about them. Thus far, there has been little evidence that shark feeds have increased the risk of attack in the surrounding area. Shark feeding has been outlawed off the coast of Florida, but continues at other locations in the Caribbean.
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