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).
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).
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Are there so few reef sharks because of human activities such as fishing and finning, or were there never very many to start with? To answer this question, a team of marine biologists (which did not include Friedlander) decided to count reef sharks at coral reefs close and far to human settlements to better understand how humans impact their populations.
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.
Grey reef sharks feed mainly on bony fishes, with cephalopods such as squid and octopus being the second-most important food group, and crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters making up the remainder. The larger sharks take a greater proportion of cephalopods. These sharks hunt individually or in groups, and have been known to pin schools of fish against the outer walls of coral reefs for feeding. Hunting groups of up to 700 grey reef sharks have been observed at Fakarava atoll in French Polynesia. They excel at capturing fish swimming in the open, and they complement hunting whitetip reef sharks, which are more adept at capturing fish inside caves and crevices. Their sense of smell is extremely acute, being capable of detecting one part tuna extract in 10 billion parts of sea water. In the presence of a large quantity of food, grey reef sharks may be roused into a feeding frenzy; in one documented frenzy caused by an underwater explosion that killed several snappers, one of the sharks involved was attacked and consumed by the others.
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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.