Whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) is a species of requiem shark, in the family Carcharhinidae, and the only member of its genus. A small shark usually not exceeding 1.6 m (5.2 ft) in length, this species is easily recognizable by its slender body and short but broad head, as well as tubular skin flaps beside the nostrils, oval eyes with vertical pupils, and white-tipped dorsal and caudal fins. One of the most common sharks found on Indo-Pacific coral reefs, the whitetip reef shark occurs as far west as South Africa and as far east as Central America. It is typically found on or near the bottom in clear water, at a depth of 8–40 m (26–131 ft).
During the day, whitetip reef sharks spend much of their time resting inside caves. Unlike other requiem sharks, which rely on ram ventilation and must constantly swim to breathe, this shark can pump water over its gills and lie still on the bottom. At night, whitetip reef sharks emerge to hunt bony fishes, crustaceans, and octopus in groups, their elongate bodies allowing them to force their way into crevices and holes to extract hidden prey. Individuals may stay within a particular area of the reef for months or years, frequently returning to the same shelter. This species is viviparous, in which the developing embryos are sustained by a placental connection to their mother. One of the few sharks in which mating has been observed in the wild, receptive female whitetip reef sharks are followed by prospective males, which attempt to grasp her pectoral fin and maneuver the two of them into positions suitable for copulation. Females give birth to one to six pups every other year, after a gestation period of 10–13 months.
Distribution and Habitat
The Whitetip reef shark is distributed widely across the entire Indo-Pacific region. It was once thought to have formerly existed in the Atlantic Ocean, based on fossil teeth found in North Carolina dating to the Miocene epoch. However, more recent research indicates that the teeth belonged to a mackerel shark, and that this species has never colonized the Atlantic. In the Indian Ocean, it occurs from northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to the Red Sea and the Indian subcontinent, including Madagascar, Mauritius, the Comoros, the Aldabra Group, the Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and the Chagos Archipelago. In the western and central Pacific, it occurs from off southern China, Taiwan, and the Ryukyu Islands, to the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia, to northern Australia, and is also found around numerous islands in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, as far as Hawaii to the north and the Pitcairn Islands to the southeast. In the eastern Pacific, it occurs from Costa Rica to Panama, and off the Galápagos Islands.
A relatively small species, few whitetip reef sharks are longer than 1.6 m (5.2 ft). The maximum length this species attains is often given as 2.1 m (6.9 ft), though this was originally based on visual observations and may be dubious. The maximum reported weight is 18.3 kg (40 lb). The whitetip reef shark has a slim body and a short, broad head. The snout is flattened and blunt, with large flaps of skin in front of the nares that are furled into tubes. The eyes are small and oval with vertical pupils and prominent ridges above, and are often followed by a small notch. The mouth has a distinct downward slant (imparting a disgruntled expression to the shark), with short furrows at the corners. There are 42–50 tooth rows in the upper jaw and 42–48 tooth rows in the lower jaw. Each tooth has a single narrow, smooth-edged cusp at the center, flanked by a pair of much smaller cusplets.