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.
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.
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Blacktip reef sharks, Carcharhinus melanopterus (Quoy and Gaimard, 1824), are small sharks measuring up to 1.8 m with short, bluntly-rounded snouts, oval eyes, and narrow-cusped teeth. They have 2 dorsal fins and no interdorsal ridges. Juveniles (< 70 cm) are yellow-brown on their dorsal (upper) sides, white on their ventral (under) sides; adults are brownish-gray and white, respectively. All their fins have conspicuous black or dark brown tips, and posterior (rear) dark edges on their pectoral fins and their upper lobe of their caudal (tail) fins. The prominent black tips of their first dorsal fin contrasts with a light band below it; a conspicuous dark band on their flanks which extends to their pelvic fins. Maximum weight: 24 kg; frequents depth ranges from the surface to 75 m.
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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.