Two shark pups swim inside a powder blue pool at the Aquarium of the Pacific, snatching bits of squid and shrimp as they circle.
With their speckled skin and torpedo-like shape, they are like any other in their species. But there's something far different about the two young females.
They are the world's first zebra sharks born through artificial insemination, according to aquarium experts.
The 10-month-old babies, slated to go on exhibit in the Long Beach aquarium's Shark Lagoon on Tuesday, could open the door to further research that would help dwindling shark populations in the wild.
More than 100 million sharks are killed annually, said Perry Hampton, who works on the aquarium's animal husbandry team. Overfishing, habitat loss and pollution have placed sharks around the globe at risk, he said.
"We are pushing the boundaries of knowledge. It's beneficial to the species as a whole," Hampton said.
Zebra sharks, which live about 25 to 30 years, are listed as "vulnerable to extinction" under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, mainly because of human activity, experts say.
Biologists will move the sharks from their behind-the-scenes nursery on the facility's third floor to the small shark exhibit before the aquarium opens Tuesday. Fern, the pair's 140-pound mother, swims in the large exhibit in the same area.
Aquarium officials say the public should have a chance to touch the young sharks by Valentine's Day.
Although the zebra shark pups are a first, the aquarium has had success with artificial insemination with other shark species. Bamboo sharks born through artificial insemination hatched for the first time a few years ago, according to Lance Adams, the facility's veterinarian.
Only Japan and Australia have successfully attempted the method on sharks, he said.
Aquarium scientists in Long Beach are testing artificial insemination on blacktip reef sharks, which give birth to live young instead of laying eggs.
"We're taking small steps," Adams said. "We're learning. We don't know what all the possibilities are."
Eventually, Adams said, the aquarium will partner with other facilities to access genes from different sharks to create more diverse communities.
"Zebra sharks can breed normally in institutions, but then they're all genetically related," he said. "The population in captivity becomes genetically very small. Assisted reproductive technology can allow, hopefully, for DNA from another shark elsewhere."
Moving an adult shark to a different aquarium for breeding presents a huge challenge, said Lise Watson, who manages the studbook for the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums' species survival plan for zebra sharks. The Long Beach aquarium's strides in artificial insemination could mitigate those difficulties, she said.
"Right now, only a handful of sharks are reproducing," Watson said. "You want to have many pairs producing a few offspring, but now we have a few pairs producing many."
Increased diversity would lead to a more sustainable population with lower abnormalities and birth defects, Adams said. In addition to providing more information on the fishes' reproductive processes, artificial insemination could prevent extinction.
"If a certain breed became endangered, if we have a sustainable population in captivity, we can reintroduce it into the wild," Adams said.