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).
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.
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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.
The "hunch" threat display of the grey reef shark is the most pronounced and well-known agonistic display (a display directed towards competitors or threats) of any shark. Investigations of this behavior have been focused on the reaction of sharks to approaching divers, some of which have culminated in attacks. The display consists of the shark raising its snout, dropping its pectoral fins, arching its back, and curving its body laterally. While holding this posture, the shark swims with a stiff, exaggerated side-to-side motion, sometimes combined with rolls or figure-8 loops. The intensity of the display increases if the shark is more closely approached or if obstacles are blocking its escape routes, such as landmarks or other sharks. If the diver persists, the shark will either retreat or launch a rapid open-mouthed attack, slashing with its upper teeth.
Socially, they are mostly loners unless living in a threatening ecosystem. These are the first and the only species of sharks that are known to “sleep” on the ocean floor or within reef caves. It is believed that these sharks are not actually sleeping but merely resting. These sharks have actually been given the nickname “sleeping sharks” because of their habit of lying motionless at the sea bottom. This is a somewhat unusual and unique behavior of these sharks.
Although still abundant at Cocos Island and other relatively pristine sites, grey reef sharks are susceptible to localized depletion due to their slow reproductive rate, specific habitat requirements, and tendency to stay within a certain area. The IUCN has assessed the grey reef shark as Near Threatened; this shark is taken by multispecies fisheries in many parts of its range and used for various products such as shark fin soup and fishmeal. Another threat is the continuing degradation of coral reefs from human development. There is evidence of substantial declines in some populations. Anderson et al. (1998) reported, in the Chagos Archipelago, grey reef shark numbers in 1996 had fallen to 14% of 1970s levels. Robbins et al. (2006) found grey reef shark populations in Great Barrier Reef fishing zones had declined by 97% compared to no-entry zones (boats are not allowed). In addition, no-take zones (boats are allowed but fishing is prohibited) had the same levels of depletion as fishing zones, illustrating the severe effect of poaching. Projections suggested the shark population would fall to 0.1% of pre-exploitation levels within 20 years without additional conservation measures. One possible avenue for conservation is ecotourism, as grey reef sharks are suitable for shark-watching ventures, and profitable diving sites now enjoy protection in many countries, such as the Maldives.
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