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).
A heavy-bodied shark with a "typical" streamlined shape, the Caribbean reef shark is difficult to distinguish from other large requiem shark species. It usually measures 2–2.5 m (6.6–8.2 ft) long; the maximum recorded length is 3 m (9.8 ft) and the maximum reported weight is 70 kg (150 lb). The coloration is dark gray or gray-brown above and white or white-yellow below, with an inconspicuous white band on the flanks. The fins are not prominently marked, and the undersides of the paired fins, the anal fin, and the lower lobe of the caudal fin are dusky.
Based on morphological similarities, Jack Garrick in 1982 grouped this species with the bignose shark (C. altimus) and the sandbar shark (C. plumbeus), while Leonard Compagno in 1988 placed it as the sister species of the grey reef shark (C. amblyrhynchos). A phylogenetic analysis based on allozyme data, published by Gavin Naylor in 1992, indicated that the Caribbean reef shark is the sister taxon to a clade formed by the Galapagos shark (C. galapagensis), dusky shark (C. obscurus), oceanic whitetip shark (C. longimanus), and the blue shark (Prionace glauca). However, more work is required to fully resolve the interrelationships within Carcharhinus.
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.
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.
In older literature, the scientific name of this species was often given as C. menisorrah. The blacktail reef shark (C. wheeleri), native to the western Indian Ocean, is now regarded as the same species as the grey reef shark by most authors. It was originally distinguished from the grey reef shark by a white tip on the first dorsal fin, a shorter snout, and one fewer upper tooth row on each side. Based on morphological characters, vertebral counts, and tooth shapes, Garrick (1982) concluded the grey reef shark is most closely related to the silvertip shark (C. albimarginatus). This interpretation was supported by a 1992 allozyme phylogenetic analysis by Lavery.
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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).
Grey reef sharks are active at all times of the day, with activity levels peaking at night. At Rangiroa, groups of around 30 sharks spend the day together in a small part of their collective home range, dispersing at night into shallower water to forage for food. Their home range is about 0.8 km2 (0.31 sq mi). At Enewetak in the Marshall Islands, grey reef sharks from different parts of the reef exhibit different social and ranging behaviors. Sharks on the outer ocean reefs tend to be nomadic, swimming long distances along the reef, while those around lagoon reefs and underwater pinnacles stay within defined daytime and night-time home ranges. Where there are strong tidal currents, grey reef sharks move against the water: towards the shore with the ebbing tide and back out to sea with the rising tide. This may allow them to better detect the scent of their prey, or afford them the cover of turbid water in which to hunt.
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Reproduction is viviparous; once the developing embryos exhaust their supply of yolk, the yolk sac develops into a placental connection through which they receive nourishment from their mother. Mating is apparently an aggressive affair, as females are often found with biting scars and wounds on their sides. At the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago and Atol das Rocas off Brazil, parturition takes place at the end of the dry season from February to April, while at other locations in the Southern Hemisphere, females give birth during the Amazon summer in November and December. The average litter size is four to six, with a gestation period of one year. Females become pregnant every other year. The newborns measure no more than 74 cm (29 in) long; males mature sexually at 1.5–1.7 m (59–67 in) long and females at 2–3 m (79–118 in).
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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.
Blacktip reef sharks are viviparous with a yolk-sac placenta, with a gestation period about 10 months and litter size of 2-4 pups. Size at birth ranges from 33-52 cm. Males mature at about eight years of age and 95-105 cm in length; females mature at about 9 years old and a length of 93-110 cm. Courtship features the one or more males following closely behind a female. Reproductive behavior includes distinct pairing with embrace where the male grasps the female’s pectoral fin between his teeth and mates belly to belly. There is one breeding season in the central and western Pacific, but two seasons in the Indian Ocean. Females rest for 8-14 month between pregnancies to rebuild their energy stores. Blacktip reef sharks are preyed upon by other sharks and large groupers. The is a socially complex species that performs a variety of group behaviors.
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.
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.
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.
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.