Measuring up to 3 m (9.8 ft) long, the Caribbean reef shark is one of the largest apex predators in the reef ecosystem, feeding on a variety of fishes and cephalopods. They have been documented resting motionless on the sea bottom or inside caves, unusual behavior for an active-swimming shark. If threatened, it may perform a threat display in which it frequently changes direction and dips its pectoral fins. Like other requiem sharks, it is viviparous with females giving birth to 4–6 young every other year. Caribbean reef sharks are of some importance to fisheries as a source of meat, leather, liver oil, and fishmeal, but recently they have become more valuable as an ecotourist attraction. In the Bahamas and elsewhere, bait is used to attract them to groups of divers in controversial "shark feedings". This species is responsible for a small number of attacks on humans. The shark attacks usually happen in spring and summer.
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The Caribbean reef shark is found throughout tropical waters, particularly in the Caribbean Sea. This shark’s range includes Florida, Bermuda, the northern Gulf of Mexico, Yucatan, Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. It is one of the most abundant sharks around the Bahamas and the Antilles. Although Caribbean reef sharks are found near reefs in southern Florida, surveys using long-line gear off the east coast of Florida reveal that Caribbean reef sharks are extremely rare north of the Florida Keys.
During mating, the male grey reef shark will bite at the female's body or fins to hold onto her for copulation. Like other requiem sharks, it is viviparous: once the developing embryos exhaust their supply of yolk, the yolk sac develops into a placental connection that sustains them to term. Each female has a single functional ovary (on the right side) and two functional uteruses. One to four pups (six in Hawaii) are born every other year; the number of young increases with female size. Estimates of the gestation period range from 9 to 14 months. Parturition is thought to take place from July to August in the Southern Hemisphere and from March to July in the Northern Hemisphere. However, females with "full-term embryos" have also been reported in the fall off Enewetak. The newborns measure 45–60 cm (18–24 in) long. Sexual maturation occurs at around seven years of age, when the males are 1.3–1.5 m (4.3–4.9 ft) long and females are 1.2–1.4 m (3.9–4.6 ft) long. Females on the Great Barrier Reef mature at 11 years of age, later than at other locations, and at a slightly larger size. The lifespan is at least 25 years.
Grey reef sharks are prey for larger sharks, such as the silvertip shark. At Rangiroa Atoll in French Polynesia, great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) feed opportunistically on grey reef sharks that are exhausted from pursuing mates. Known parasites of this species include the nematode Huffmanela lata and several copepod species that attach to the sharks' skin, and juvenile stages of the isopods Gnathia trimaculata and G. grandilaris that attach to the gill filaments and septa (the dividers between each gill).
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.
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.
Grey reef sharks were the first shark species known to perform a threat display, a stereotypical behavior warning that it is prepared to attack. The display involves a "hunched" posture with characteristically dropped pectoral fins, and an exaggerated, side-to-side swimming motion. Grey reef sharks often do so if they are followed or cornered by divers to indicate they perceive a threat. This species has been responsible for a number of attacks on humans, so should be treated with caution, especially if they begin to display. They are caught in many fisheries and are susceptible to local population depletion due to their low reproduction rate and limited dispersal. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has assessed this species as Near Threatened.
Like many sharks, the Caribbean reef shark mainly eats bony fishes. The shark uses six keen senses to locate its prey: olfactory, visual, tactile (including water vibration sensitivity through a lateralis canal system), auditory, gustatory, and electric reception. The Caribbean reef shark is especially adapted to detecting low frequency sounds (indicative of a struggling fish nearby).
But another potential cause is that these sharks are skittish around people. So when too many people move into the area, the reef sharks flee to other coral reefs. Indeed, the researchers found far more sharks at small, isolated reefs than they expected. But this in itself is a danger to the reef sharks. With so many sharks concentrated in a small area, “if you really wanted to, you could fish out a few hundred sharks very easily,” said Friedlander.
Ancient reefs buried within stratigraphic sections are of considerable interest to geologists because they provide paleo-environmental information about the location in Earth's history. In addition, reef structures within a sequence of sedimentary rocks provide a discontinuity which may serve as a trap or conduit for fossil fuels or mineralizing fluids to form petroleum or ore deposits.