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.
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).
One useful definition distinguishes reefs from mounds as follows: Both are considered to be varieties of organosedimentary buildups – sedimentary features, built by the interaction of organisms and their environment, that have synoptic relief and whose biotic composition differs from that found on and beneath the surrounding sea floor. Reefs are held up by a macroscopic skeletal framework. Coral reefs are an excellent example of this kind. Corals and calcareous algae grow on top of one another and form a three-dimensional framework that is modified in various ways by other organisms and inorganic processes. By contrast, mounds lack a macroscopic skeletal framework (see stromatolite). Mounds are built by microorganisms or by organisms that don't grow a skeletal framework. A microbial mound might be built exclusively or primarily by cyanobacteria. Excellent examples of biostromes formed by cyanobacteria occur in the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and in Shark Bay on the coast of Western Australia.
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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.
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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.
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.
Blacktip reef sharks are regularly caught by inshore fisheries and are vulnerable to depletion because of their small litter sizes and long gestation periods. Traumatogenic. May become aggressive to spear fishers and are reported to bite people wading in shallow water. Generally marketed fresh (as fillet), may be dried, salted, smoked or frozen. Fins are valued for shark-fin soup; a market that is decimating shark populations worldwide. They are also sought for their liver as source of oil.
Another danger posed to humans by the Caribbean reef shark involves the accumulation of toxins in the flesh of the shark. Since sharks are apex marine predators, they may contain toxic levels of mercury and other heavy metals due to bioaccumulation (increasing concentrations at higher levels in the food web). It was found that methylmercury levels (MeHg) in sharks off the coast of Florida were higher than the FDA guidelines.
Typically a solitary animal, juvenile blacktip reef sharks will commonly conjugate in shallow regions during high tide. Vulnerable to larger predators, they will reside in shallower areas until larger in size. Blacktip reef sharks tend to be more active during dawn and dusk, but like most sharks they are opportunistic feeders. Their diet consists of crustaceans, squid, octopus, and bony fish.
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).