Grey reef sharks are often curious about divers when they first enter the water and may approach quite closely, though they lose interest on repeat dives. They can become dangerous in the presence of food, and tend to be more aggressive if encountered in open water rather than on the reef. There have been several known attacks on spearfishers, possibly by mistake, when the shark struck at the speared fish close to the diver. This species will also attack if pursued or cornered, and divers should immediately retreat (slowly and always facing the shark) if it begins to perform a threat display. Photographing the display should not be attempted, as the flash from a camera is known to have incited at least one attack. Although of modest size, they are capable of inflicting significant damage: during one study of the threat display, a grey reef shark attacked the researchers' submersible multiple times, leaving tooth marks in the plastic windows and biting off one of the propellers. The shark consistently launched its attacks from a distance of 6 m (20 ft), which it was able to cover in a third of a second. As of 2008, the International Shark Attack File listed seven unprovoked and six provoked attacks (none of them fatal) attributable to this species.
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).
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.
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.
Along with the blacktip reef shark (C. melanopterus) and the whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus), the grey reef shark is one of the three most common sharks inhabiting Indo-Pacific reefs. They actively expel most other shark species from favored habitats, even species larger in size. In areas where this species co-exists with the blacktip reef shark, the latter species occupies the shallow flats, while the former stays in deeper water. Areas with a high abundance of grey reef sharks tend to contain few sandbar sharks (C. plumbeus), and vice versa; this may be due to their similar diets causing competitive exclusion.
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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.
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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).
Ancient reefs buried within stratigraphic sections are of considerable interest to geologists because they provide paleo-environmental information about the location in Earth's history. In addition, reef structures within a sequence of sedimentary rocks provide a discontinuity which may serve as a trap or conduit for fossil fuels or mineralizing fluids to form petroleum or ore deposits.