Blacktip Reef Shark
They move in and out of mangrove swamps with the tides.
Blacktip Reef Shark Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- C. melanopterus
Blacktip Reef Shark Conservation Status
Blacktip Reef Shark Facts
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Blacktip reef sharks are the most common shark in reef systems in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
These sharks are part of the family Carcharinidae, also known as requiem sharks. They inhabit many shallow coastal waters and tropical reefs and create nurseries for their young.
Blacktip Reef Shark Facts
- Their fins are desired for shark fin soup and they’re hunted by commercial fishers.
- Blacktip reef sharks congregate to create pup nurseries in shallow coastal waters.
- Juveniles grow quickly in their first couple of years, up to nine inches.
Classification and Scientific Name of the Blacktip Reef Shark
Blacktip reef sharks are a species of requiem sharks. They’re in the family Carcharhinidae Sharks in this family live in tropical or warm waters; a few, like the bull shark, can also live in brackish or fresh water. They typically have rounded snouts and blade-shaped teeth.
This shark’s genus name is Carcharhinus and it’s a combination of the Greek words karkaros, meaning jagged or sharpened, and rhino which means nose. Its specific name is melanopterus and it means black-fin.
Identifying the Blacktip Reef Shark: Appearance and Description
This shark has a classic “shark look” and a powerful, streamlined build. It has somewhat large eyes with a third eyelid, a roundish snout, and lobed skin flaps in front of each of its nostrils. Like other requiem sharks, their teeth are serrated and triangle-shaped.
A medium-sized coastal shark, the blacktip reef shark generally reaches about five feet long, possibly six feet. It’s easy to identify, with black tips and white borders on all fins; however, these are most noticeable on its first dorsal fin and lower lobe of the caudal fin. These markings are a defining characteristic of the species. Its back is grayish-brown with a white belly; the white stripe on its flank starts below its second dorsal fin and ends about halfway toward the nose. It doesn’t have a ridge between its dorsal fins; the pectoral fins are sickle-shaped and taper to points.
Blacktip Reef Shark Distribution and Habitat
These sharks inhabit many of the coastal tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This includes East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea, all the way to the Tuamoto Archipelago and the Hawaiian Islands. Blacktip reef sharks also occur as far north as Japan and south to the north coast of Australia. They sometimes travel through the Suez Canal into the eastern areas of the Mediterranean.
They’re a fairly widespread species, but individual sharks often have small home ranges that they don’t migrate from, although a few may go farther looking for prey. This species stays pretty close to shore, to a depth of about 75 meters. They’re found in shallow water above coral reefs, in the intertidal zone, and near drop-offs at the edges of reefs. They’ve also been found in mangroves where they follow the tide in and out. These reef sharks can also live in freshwater, but they’re never far from the sea.
Pups hide in shallow nurseries, so bigger sharks don’t eat them and begin to venture out when they’re bigger. Juveniles often form large groups in mangroves swamps or over sand flats. The water frequently only just covers their bodies, and they move in and out with the tides; sometimes, they move across seaweed beds and flooded coral platforms.
Conservation and Population
Like many reef inhabitants, blacktip reef sharks have seen population reductions. The IUCN published a report in 2020 that estimated an approximate 30-49% population reduction over the last three generations (44 years). The report took data from underwater video stations in 254 reefs throughout its range; consequently, they assessed the blacktip reef shark as vulnerable.
Part of the challenge for this shark is that it reproduces slowly and the females only give birth to 2-4 pups every other year. However, human activities also threaten this shark. It’s both actively hunted by commercial fisheries (both large and small scale) and taken accidentally as bycatch. Commercial fisheries use a variety of methods to catch it including longline, gillnet, handline, and trawls. The blacktip reef shark is marketed for a variety of products – fins, skin, meat, teeth, and liver. The habitat quality of coral reefs has also declined due to pollution and destructive fishing practices.
That’s not to say that the species is in decline everywhere. It’s not. Some locations have healthy populations of blacktip reef sharks. Some areas have protections in place and others don’t.
One protected area is Palmyra Atoll. It’s a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge and a Nature Conservancy preserve. In the surrounding waters there are 15,000 acres of nearly pristine coral reefs. With the exception of the U.S. military during WWII, there has never been a permanent human settlement on the Atoll. Scientists use this and areas like it to help provide a baseline of what a healthy coral reef looks like.
Predators and Prey of Blacktip Reef Sharks
Scientists believe that blacktip, Caribbean, and other reef sharks play a significant role in shaping the structure of coral reef communities. Blacktip reef sharks band together to herd schools of mullet towards the shore so they can feed more efficiently. They also eat mullet, groupers, surgeonfish, grunters, jacks, smelt-whitings, mojarras, and wrasses. Occasionally, they also take shrimp and cephalopods like squid or octopus. Scientsts have seen the Palmyra Atoll sharks have take seabird chicks that fall into the water from their nests.
The ampullae of Lorenzini also help the sharks locate their prey via electroreception. These sharks do not have cone cells in their retinae. It limits their ability to discern colors and details. They are more sensitive to contrast and movement with low light, and blacktip reef sharks become more confident when there are others of its species nearby.
Juveniles and smaller sharks are preyed upon by bigger fishes, including groupers; other sharks also prey on them, including grey reef sharks, tiger sharks, and others of their own species.
Blacktip reef sharks are often hunted for their meat and fins because many people find them tasty. The IUCN lists them as vulnerable, and their biggest threat is their preference for shallow water puts them at risk. Coastal development often brings with it the destruction of nursery sites that they need for their young.
Reproduction and Lifespan of the Blacktip Reef Shark
Like other requiem sharks, this species is viviparous. The timing varies depending upon location, with some females mating yearly or every other year. It may be that the variance in schedules is due to more competition for resources; the water temperature may also play a role. Those off the coast of northern Australia mate yearly; that’s also true for French Polynesia. However, off the coast of Aldabra, the females mate every other year. This area has intense competition for food, both among the blacktip reef sharks and other species.
In any case, female blacktip reef sharks give birth to 4-10 pups. These sharks set up nurseries in shallow water close to the shore. There, the pups live until they’re a little bigger to help them avoid being eaten by an even bigger fish.
Blacktip Reef Shark in Fishing and Cooking
These sharks are sometimes caught as bycatch, but they’re also frequently the target. As previously mentioned, many people find blacktip reef shark delicious. Their fins are often used in shark fin soup and their meat also marketable.
- Caribbean reef sharks aren’t well-studied and easily confused with other species.
- Bull sharks are aggressive and unpredictable. They can live in freshwater, and sometimes travel far up the Mississippi River.
- Six-gill sharks are ancient predators. Meet one of the oldest shark species on the planet.
Blacktip Reef Shark FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Where are blacktip reef sharks found?
These sharks inhabit coastal shallows, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Do blacktip reef sharks attack humans?
Generally only by mistake or if they’re harassed. These sharks are often described as timid or skittish and prefer to avoid people.
How deep do blacktip reef sharks live?
They can occur in water as deep as 245 feet, they usually prefer water that’s only a few yards deep.
Are blacktip reef sharks dangerous?
For all their sharp teeth and ability to injure humans, there are very few attacks reported. They don’t have very good vision, so most bites are purely by accident.
What do blacktip reef sharks eat?
Lots of fish. Coral reefs are home to many different species, and their diet includes groupers and several other species.
- Carcharhinus melanopterus | FishBase, Available here: http://www.fishbase.us/summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=877&AT=blacktip+reef+shark
- Blacktip Reef Shark | IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/39375/58303674
- Blacktip Reef Shark | The Nature Conservancy, Available here: https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/animals-we-protect/blacktip-reef-shark/