The grey reef shark has a streamlined, moderately stout body with a long, blunt snout and large, round eyes. The upper and lower jaws each have 13 or 14 teeth (usually 14 in the upper and 13 in the lower). The upper teeth are triangular with slanted cusps, while the bottom teeth have narrower, erect cusps. The tooth serrations are larger in the upper jaw than in the lower. The first dorsal fin is medium-sized, and there is no ridge running between it and the second dorsal fin. The pectoral fins are narrow and falcate (sickle-shaped).
The Caribbean reef shark is a viviparous species, meaning its developing embryos are nourished via a placental connection. The litters average four to six pups. Although this shark’s reproduction has not been studied in the northern hemisphere, but to the south, parturition occurs during the Amazon summer of November to December. Pregnant females are often found to have biting scars from males on the sides of their bodies, due to the aggressive behaviors of males during mating. Gestation is believed to take approximately one year. A pregnant female with biting scars and wounds on the sides of her body, taken off the coast of north-northeastern Brazil, carried four near-term embryos. One was a 27.5 in. (700 mm) long male and three were females measuring 27.0 in. (685 mm), 27.4 in. (697 mm), and 27.7 in. (704 mm) in length. Because she was carrying near-term embryos, it is postulated that this area may be a pupping ground. Although such captures have shed light on the topic, relatively little is known about the reproduction of the Caribbean reef shark. Much information has been obtained from a pregnant female carrying four near-term embryos off the coast of northeastern Brazil. This female had scars and wounds on her side. Because the shark carried near-term embryos, it is postulated that this area may be a pupping ground.
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.
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.
On the infrequent occasions when they swim in oceanic waters, grey reef sharks often associate with marine mammals or large pelagic fishes, such as sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus). There is an account of around 25 grey reef sharks following a large pod of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.), along with 25 silky sharks (C. falciformis) and a single silvertip shark. Rainbow runners (Elagatis bipinnulata) have been observed rubbing against grey reef sharks, using the sharks' rough skin to scrape off parasites.
Social aggregation is well documented in grey reef sharks. In the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, large numbers of pregnant adult females have been observed slowly swimming in circles in shallow water, occasionally exposing their dorsal fins or backs. These groups last from 11:00 to 15:00, corresponding to peak daylight hours. Similarly, at Sand Island off Johnston Atoll, females form aggregations in shallow water from March to June. The number of sharks per group differs from year to year. Each day, the sharks begin arriving at the aggregation area at 09:00, reaching a peak in numbers during the hottest part of the day in the afternoon, and dispersing by 19:00. Individual sharks return to the aggregation site every one to six days. These female sharks are speculated to be taking advantage of the warmer water to speed their growth or that of their embryos. The shallow waters may also enable them to avoid unwanted attention by males.
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 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.
WWF works to preserve the coral habitats where reef sharks live through the creation and improved management of marine protected areas, elaboration of fisheries management plans, and the introduction of fishing bans to protect vulnerable species including reef sharks. WWF also promoted the understanding that communities can derive more economic value from reef sharks through tourism than through their capture. We support local communities to set up appropriate ecotourism systems and infrastructure to ensure well-managed and sustainable shark tourism operations.
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