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In older literature, the scientific name of this species was often given as C. menisorrah. The blacktail reef shark (C. wheeleri), native to the western Indian Ocean, is now regarded as the same species as the grey reef shark by most authors. It was originally distinguished from the grey reef shark by a white tip on the first dorsal fin, a shorter snout, and one fewer upper tooth row on each side. Based on morphological characters, vertebral counts, and tooth shapes, Garrick (1982) concluded the grey reef shark is most closely related to the silvertip shark (C. albimarginatus). This interpretation was supported by a 1992 allozyme phylogenetic analysis by Lavery.
Reef sharks play a major role in shaping Caribbean reef communities. As the top predators of the reef and indicator species for marine ecosystems, they help maintain the delicate balance of marine life in reef environments. Reef sharks are highly valued for their meat, leather, liver oil, and fishmeal, which make them prone to overfishing and targeting. Yet, their importance for the tourism industry makes them more valuable alive than dead. In 2011, Honduras declared its waters to be a permanent sanctuary for sharks, making fishing for these species completely forbidden.
A heavy-bodied shark with a "typical" streamlined shape, the Caribbean reef shark is difficult to distinguish from other large requiem shark species. It usually measures 2–2.5 m (6.6–8.2 ft) long; the maximum recorded length is 3 m (9.8 ft) and the maximum reported weight is 70 kg (150 lb). The coloration is dark gray or gray-brown above and white or white-yellow below, with an inconspicuous white band on the flanks. The fins are not prominently marked, and the undersides of the paired fins, the anal fin, and the lower lobe of the caudal fin are dusky.
Grey reef sharks are active at all times of the day, with activity levels peaking at night. At Rangiroa, groups of around 30 sharks spend the day together in a small part of their collective home range, dispersing at night into shallower water to forage for food. Their home range is about 0.8 km2 (0.31 sq mi). At Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, grey reef sharks from different parts of the reef exhibit different social and ranging behaviors. Sharks on the outer ocean reefs tend to be nomadic, swimming long distances along the reef, while those around lagoon reefs and underwater pinnacles stay within defined daytime and night-time home ranges. Where there are strong tidal currents, grey reef sharks move against the water: towards the shore with the ebbing tide and back out to sea with the rising tide. This may allow them to better detect the scent of their prey, or afford them the cover of turbid water in which to hunt.
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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Corals, including some major extinct groups Rugosa and Tabulata, have been important reef builders through much of the Phanerozoic since the Ordovician Period. However, other organism groups, such as calcifying algae, especially members of the red algae Rhodophyta, and molluscs (especially the rudist bivalves during the Cretaceous Period) have created massive structures at various times. During the Cambrian Period, the conical or tubular skeletons of Archaeocyatha, an extinct group of uncertain affinities (possibly sponges), built reefs. Other groups, such as the Bryozoa have been important interstitial organisms, living between the framework builders. The corals which build reefs today, the Scleractinia, arose after the Permian–Triassic extinction event that wiped out the earlier rugose corals (as well as many other groups), and became increasingly important reef builders throughout the Mesozoic Era. They may have arisen from a rugose coral ancestor. Rugose corals built their skeletons of calcite and have a different symmetry from that of the scleractinian corals, whose skeletons are aragonite. However, there are some unusual examples of well-preserved aragonitic rugose corals in the late Permian. In addition, calcite has been reported in the initial post-larval calcification in a few scleractinian corals. Nevertheless, scleractinian corals (which arose in the middle Triassic) may have arisen from a non-calcifying ancestor independent of the rugosan corals (which disappeared in the late Permian).