This species is commonly found in shallow waters on and near coral reefs and occasionally in brackish waters. Juveniles are typically found in extremely shallow water (±15 to 100 cm) inside lagoons, often swimming along the shoreline; adults typically occur on shallow parts of the forereef, often moving over the reef crest and onto the reef flat at flood tide. Individual adults inhabit a relatively small home range of ±2.5 km2 and appear to reside close to their home reef but occasionally cross deepwater channels between adjacent reefs.
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.
The Caribbean reef shark is found throughout tropical waters, particularly in the Caribbean Sea. This shark’s range includes Florida, Bermuda, the northern Gulf of Mexico, Yucatan, Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. It is one of the most abundant sharks around the Bahamas and the Antilles. Although Caribbean reef sharks are found near reefs in southern Florida, surveys using long-line gear off the east coast of Florida reveal that Caribbean reef sharks are extremely rare north of the Florida Keys.
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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.
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.
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).
The Caribbean reef shark infrequently attacks humans. In general, a shark attack on a human is behaviorally similar to an attack upon natural prey. A human is more susceptible to being attacked if the shark is cornered and feels that there is no escape route. In situations like these, the shark may rake the victim during the attack resulting in lacerations.
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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).
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.
Off Enewetak, grey reef sharks exhibit different social behaviors on different parts of the reef. Sharks tend to be solitary on shallower reefs and pinnacles. Near reef drop-offs, loose aggregations of five to 20 sharks form in the morning and grow in number throughout the day before dispersing at night. In level areas, sharks form polarized schools (all swimming in the same direction) of around 30 individuals near the sea bottom, arranging themselves parallel to each other or slowly swimming in circles. Most individuals within polarized schools are females, and the formation of these schools has been theorized to relate to mating or pupping.
A reef is a bar of rock, sand, coral or similar material, lying beneath the surface of water. Many reefs result from abiotic processes (i.e. deposition of sand, wave erosion planing down rock outcrops, and other natural processes), but the best known reefs are the coral reefs of tropical waters developed through biotic processes dominated by corals and coralline algae.