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).
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.
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.
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.
This sturdy shark is abundant in the Caribbean, and because of its average features, is often confused with other requiem sharks. Usually growing 6.5 to 10 feet long, these are the apex predator of their food web. They have been found ‘sleeping’ in caves and on the ocean floor, behavior that is still unexplained. There has been concern over eating these sharks because of the build-up of toxins in their flesh, but now they are valued for tourism more than food, which brings its own safety issues.
Juvenile Caribbean reef sharks are preyed upon by larger sharks such as the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and the bull shark (C. leucas). Few parasites are known for this species; one is a dark variegated leech often seen trailing from its first dorsal fin. Off northern Brazil, juveniles seek out cleaning stations occupied by yellownose gobies (Elacatinus randalli), which clean the sharks of parasites while they lie still on the bottom. Horse-eye jacks (Caranx latus) and bar jacks (Carangoides ruber) routinely school around Caribbean reef sharks.
The grey reef shark is native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In the Indian Ocean, it occurs from South Africa to India, including Madagascar and nearby islands, the Red Sea, and the Maldives. In the Pacific Ocean, it is found from southern China to northern Australia and New Zealand, including the Gulf of Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. This species has also been reported from numerous Pacific islands, including American Samoa, the Chagos Archipelago, Easter Island, Christmas Island, the Cook Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Guam, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Caledonia, the Marianas Islands, Palau, the Pitcairn Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the Hawaiian Islands and Vanuatu.
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.
Blacktip reef sharks are fast, pursuit predators that prefer reef fishes, but also feeds on stingrays, crabs, mantis shrimps and other crustaceans, cephalopods, and other mollusks. In the Maldives, this species has been documented feeding cooperatively on small schooling fishes, herding them against the shore and feeding en masse. Feeds heavily on sea snakes in northern Australia. A large individual (1.6 m) was observed attacking a green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas, in North Male’ Atoll, Maldives.
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.
Most observed displays by grey reef sharks have been in response to a diver (or submersible) approaching and following it from a few meters behind and above. They also perform the display towards moray eels, and in one instance towards a much larger great hammerhead (which subsequently withdrew). However, they have never been seen performing threat displays towards each other. This suggests the display is primarily a response to potential threats (i.e. predators) rather than competitors. As grey reef sharks are not territorial, they are speculated to be defending a critical volume of "personal space" around themselves. Compared to sharks from French Polynesia or Micronesia, grey reef sharks from the Indian Ocean and western Pacific are not as aggressive and less given to displaying.
Despite its abundance in certain areas, the Caribbean reef shark is one of the least-studied large requiem sharks. They are believed to play a major role in shaping Caribbean reef communities. These sharks are more active at night, with no evidence of seasonal changes in activity or migration. Juveniles tend to remain in a localized area throughout the year, while adults range over a wider area.
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.
Corals, including some major extinct groups Rugosa and Tabulata, have been important reef builders through much of the Phanerozoic since the Ordovician Period. However, other organism groups, such as calcifying algae, especially members of the red algae Rhodophyta, and molluscs (especially the rudist bivalves during the Cretaceous Period) have created massive structures at various times. During the Cambrian Period, the conical or tubular skeletons of Archaeocyatha, an extinct group of uncertain affinities (possibly sponges), built reefs. Other groups, such as the Bryozoa have been important interstitial organisms, living between the framework builders. The corals which build reefs today, the Scleractinia, arose after the Permian–Triassic extinction event that wiped out the earlier rugose corals (as well as many other groups), and became increasingly important reef builders throughout the Mesozoic Era. They may have arisen from a rugose coral ancestor. Rugose corals built their skeletons of calcite and have a different symmetry from that of the scleractinian corals, whose skeletons are aragonite. However, there are some unusual examples of well-preserved aragonitic rugose corals in the late Permian. In addition, calcite has been reported in the initial post-larval calcification in a few scleractinian corals. Nevertheless, scleractinian corals (which arose in the middle Triassic) may have arisen from a non-calcifying ancestor independent of the rugosan corals (which disappeared in the late Permian).