Caribbean Reef Shark
These sharks are a big part of ecotoursim in the Caribbean.
Caribbean Reef Shark Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- C. Perezi
Caribbean Reef Shark Conservation Status
Caribbean Reef Shark Locations
Caribbean Reef Shark Facts
- bony fishes, octopuses, crabs
- Name Of Young
- Group Behavior
- Solitary except during mating season
- Fun Fact
- These sharks are a big part of ecotoursim in the Caribbean.
- Biggest Threat
- Fishing bycatch and active hunting
- Other Name(s)
- cabeza dura, Caribische rifhaai, reef shark, requin de récif, shark, tiburón, tiburón coralino
- Gestation Period
- 12 months
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Caribbean reef sharks inhabit warm, shallow waters on or near coral reefs.
This streamlined hunter makes its home in the tropical western Atlantic Ocean from North Carolina to Brazil, rarely diving deeper than 30 meters. It’s only rarely implicated in attacks on people and is a frequent sight near coral reefs in the Caribbean.
Caribbean Reef Shark Facts
- Sharks don’t have swim bladders; instead, their livers are high in fat and help the sharks stay afloat.
- Highly valuable in ecotourism; many shark feeding tours in the Caribbean feature this species.
- Most scientists agree that Caribbean reef sharks are vital to coral reef communities.
Classification and Scientific Name of the Caribbean Reef Shark
Caribbean reef sharks are one of the least studied of the requiem, or Carcharhinidae family, sharks. Sharks in this family generally have rounded snouts and blade-shaped teeth, and live in tropical or warm waters. Some, like the bull shark, can even live in brackish or fresh water.
This shark’s genus name is Carcharhinus and it’s a combination of the Greek words karkaros, meaning sharp or jagged, and rhinos meaning nose.
Identifying the Caribbean Reef Shark: Appearance and Description
An apex predator in the reef system, the Caribbean reef shark ranges between 6.5 and 8.2 feet long but can grow up to 9.8 feet long. Typical of requiem sharks, this species is heavy-bodied and streamlined. Its snout is short, rounded, and wide; the eyes round and large. Like other sharks, it has a third pair of eyelids, called nictitating membranes, that protect its eyes. The shark has five moderately long gill slits, and the third slit sits above the front of its pectoral fin. It has a tall, sickle-shaped dorsal fin and a low ridge running from there to the second dorsal fin.
Its dorsal side varies between gray-brown and dark gray, while its belly is either yellowish-white or white. This shark also has a subtle white stripe on its flanks. The lower lobe of its caudal fin, anal fin, and the underside of its paired fins is a darker gray, but not strongly marked.
Like other requiem sharks, this one is extraordinarily fast, and its torpedo-shaped body cuts through the water with little effort. Caribbean reef sharks are relatively docile and rarely attack humans.
Caribbean Reef Shark Distribution and Habitat
The Caribbean reef shark inhabits the warm waters of the tropical western Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. It ranges as far south as Brazil, and north to North Carolina, although it’s quite rare north of the Florida Keys.
Shallow waters on and around coral reefs are its favorite areas and this shark is common near the reefs’ outer edges. It occasionally dives to 1,240 feet but spends most of its time in shallow water less than about 100 feet deep.
Juveniles tend to stay in shallower water and shelter within the confines of the reef system. When they’re big enough to leave without becoming the prey of a larger tiger or bull shark, they move out towards the edges of the reef.
This shark has a habit of resting on the bottom of the ocean, or in coral caves; a behavior which earned them the nickname “sleeping sharks.”
Conservation and Population
The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species classifies these sharks as endangered. Their population is decreasing as a direct result of both illegal hunting and fishing bycatch. In some areas, these sharks are abundant; however, this species hasn’t been studied as much as other requiem sharks. They’re more active at night and don’t seem to migrate. Some believe that Caribbean reef sharks help shape reef communities, but more research needs to be done.
This species has always been fished for meat, liver oil, fishmeal, and leather. However, in recent years, they have become far more valuable as part of the ecotourism industry. Some estimate that a single live Caribbean reef shark is worth $13,000-$14,000 alive versus about $60 dead.
In areas where they don’t have any protection, their population has decreased by as much as 90%. However, protected areas have stable populations. They’re protected in United States waters, and Honduras declared its waters a shark sanctuary permanently in 2011.
Predators and Prey of Caribbean Reef Sharks
The adults feed on reef-dwelling animals like barracuda, jacks, snapper, octopus, trumpetfishes, eagle rays, and yellow stingrays. Juveniles eat small fishes, shrimps, and crabs. To rid themselves of indigestible parts from their meal or remove parasites, Caribbean reef sharks have a neat trick – they can evert their stomach. Eversion is a process that some animals use to completely purge their stomachs.
Young Caribbean reef sharks often visit cleaning stations occupied by yellow-nose gobies off the coast of northern Brazil. They rest on the bottom of the ocean while the fish clean parasites. Tiger sharks and bull sharks prey on juveniles, but adults have few natural predators.
Reproduction and Lifespan of the Caribbean Reef Shark
Female Caribbean reef sharks give birth every other year. Mating is apparently violent, females often have deep wounds on their sides during mating season. Pregnancy lasts about 12 months and females have a litter of 3-6 pups every other year. Their relatively long span between litters and the low number of pups per litter means that they don’t grow in numbers very quickly. So, sharks killed through either direct hunting or fishing bycatch are replaced slowly.
Like other sharks, the Caribbean reef shark doesn’t lay eggs; instead, the young develop inside the mother until they run out of yolk. Then, the empty yolk sac becomes a placental connection which enables them to gain nutrients directly from their mother. The babies are about two and a half feet long when they’re born and reach maturity at four or five years of age. Some studies suggest that this shark’s lifespan is more than 14 years.
Caribbean Reef Shark in Fishing and Cooking
In some areas, this species is still actively hunted for meat, liver oil, and leather. However, their muscle tissue accumulates toxic levels of methylmercury and other heavy metals. So, many commercial fisheries aren’t hunting them anymore. They’re not as attractive to consumers because of the possibility of toxic heavy metals.
Laws that ban hunting/fishing help reduce the number of sharks killed, but they are still in about 40% of their fish catch. Bycatch like this has had a dramatic impact on the shark’s dwindling population. In areas that have laws protecting them, their population is growing, but overall, the species is endangered.
- Bull sharks are aggressive and unpredictable – and they are often found in freshwater too.
- Meet one of the oldest shark species on the planet: Six-gill sharks.
- Blacktip reef sharks also live in coral reefs, but in a different part of the world.
Caribbean Reef Shark FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Where are Caribbean reef sharks found?
As their name implies, they’re found in the Caribbean, on and near coral reefs. They also inhabit warm Atlantic waters from North Carolina to Brazil.
Do Caribbean reef sharks attack humans?
Rarely. It’s usually because a person has harrassed the shark, not because it’s an aggressive species.
How deep do Caribbean reef sharks live?
They prefer shallow waters, less than 30 meters deep. However, they sometimes dive as deep as 1,240 feet.
Are Caribbean reef sharks dangerous?
They don’t generally attack people, they’re more fond of eating the animals that live in and around the coral reefs. However, they are big, powerful sharks that can inflict a great deal of harm.
What do Caribbean reef sharks eat?
These sharks eat a variety of wildlife found in and around coral reefs including barracuda, jacks, snapper, octopus, trumpetfishes, small fishes, shrimps, crabs, eagle rays, and yellow stingrays.
Which other sharks live in the Caribbean sea?
Sharks like bull sharks, tiger sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, silky sharks, and lemon sharks can be found in the Caribbean sea.
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- IUCN Redlist, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/60217/3093780
- The Online Guide to the Animals of Trinidad and Tobago; Caribbean Reef Shark | University of the West Indies, Available here: https://sta.uwi.edu/fst/lifesciences/sites/default/files/lifesciences/images/Carcharhinus_perezi%20-%20Caribbean%20Reef%20Shark.pdf
- Caribbean Reef Shark | Fishbase , Available here: http://www.fishbase.us/summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=879&AT=caribbean+reef+shark
- Florida Fish & Wildlife, Available here: https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/saltwater/sharks/caribbean-reef-shark/