Measuring up to 3 m (9.8 ft) long, the Caribbean reef shark is one of the largest apex predators in the reef ecosystem, feeding on a variety of fishes and cephalopods. They have been documented resting motionless on the sea bottom or inside caves, unusual behavior for an active-swimming shark. If threatened, it may perform a threat display in which it frequently changes direction and dips its pectoral fins. Like other requiem sharks, it is viviparous with females giving birth to 4–6 young every other year. Caribbean reef sharks are of some importance to fisheries as a source of meat, leather, liver oil, and fishmeal, but recently they have become more valuable as an ecotourist attraction. In the Bahamas and elsewhere, bait is used to attract them to groups of divers in controversial "shark feedings". This species is responsible for a small number of attacks on humans. The shark attacks usually happen in spring and summer.
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.
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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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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.
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.
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.
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.
Grey reef sharks are fast-swimming, agile predators that feed primarily on free-swimming bony fishes and cephalopods. Their aggressive demeanor enables them to dominate many other shark species on the reef, despite their moderate size. Many grey reef sharks have a home range on a specific area of the reef, to which they continually return. However, they are social rather than territorial. During the day, these sharks often form groups of five to 20 individuals near coral reef drop-offs, splitting up in the evening as the sharks begin to hunt. Adult females also form groups in very shallow water, where the higher water temperature may accelerate their growth or that of their unborn young. Like other members of its family, the grey reef shark is viviparous, meaning the mother nourishes her embryos through a placental connection. Litters of one to six pups are born every other year.
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.
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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.
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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.
The "hunch" threat display of the grey reef shark is the most pronounced and well-known agonistic display (a display directed towards competitors or threats) of any shark. Investigations of this behavior have been focused on the reaction of sharks to approaching divers, some of which have culminated in attacks. The display consists of the shark raising its snout, dropping its pectoral fins, arching its back, and curving its body laterally. While holding this posture, the shark swims with a stiff, exaggerated side-to-side motion, sometimes combined with rolls or figure-8 loops. The intensity of the display increases if the shark is more closely approached or if obstacles are blocking its escape routes, such as landmarks or other sharks. If the diver persists, the shark will either retreat or launch a rapid open-mouthed attack, slashing with its upper teeth.
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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