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).
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).
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.
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).
This species is commonly found in shallow waters on and near coral reefs and occasionally in brackish waters. Juveniles are typically found in extremely shallow water (±15 to 100 cm) inside lagoons, often swimming along the shoreline; adults typically occur on shallow parts of the forereef, often moving over the reef crest and onto the reef flat at flood tide. Individual adults inhabit a relatively small home range of ±2.5 km2 and appear to reside close to their home reef but occasionally cross deepwater channels between adjacent reefs.
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.