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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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.
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).
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).
The Caribbean reef shark feeds on a wide variety of reef-dwelling bony fishes and cephalopods, as well as some elasmobranchs such as eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) and yellow stingrays (Urobatis jamaicensis). It is attracted to low-frequency sounds, which are indicative of struggling fish. In one observation of a 2 m (6.6 ft) long male Caribbean reef shark hunting a yellowtail snapper (Lutjanus crysurus), the shark languidly circled and made several seemingly "half-hearted" turns towards its prey, before suddenly accelerating and swinging its head sideways to capture the snapper at the corner of its jaws. Young sharks feed on small fishes, shrimps, and crabs. Caribbean reef sharks are capable of everting their stomachs, which likely serves to cleanse indigestible particles, parasites, and mucus from the stomach lining.
The snout is rather short, broad, and rounded, without prominent flaps of skin beside the nostrils. The eyes are large and circular, with nictitating membranes (protective third eyelids). There are 11–13 tooth rows in either half of both jaws. The teeth have broad bases, serrated edges, and narrow cusps; the front 2–4 teeth on each side are erect and the others increasingly oblique. The five pairs of gill slits are moderately long, with the third gill slit over the origin of the pectoral fins. The first dorsal fin is high and falcate (sickle-shaped). There is a low interdorsal ridge running behind it to the second dorsal fin, which is relatively large with a short free rear tip. The origin of the first dorsal fin lies over or slightly forward of the free rear tips of the pectoral fins, and that of the second dorsal fin lies over or slightly forward of the anal fin. The pectoral fins are long and narrow, tapering to a point. The dermal denticles are closely spaced and overlapping, each with five (sometimes seven in large individuals) horizontal low ridges leading to marginal teeth.
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.
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).
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