The two new zebra shark pups at the Aquarium of the Pacific won't be on display until Tuesday, but the reason they hatched is already causing quite a stir at the facility.
Long Beach's aquarium is the first to successfully reproduce zebra sharks through artificial insemination, according to aquarium scientists. The baby female sharks are a hopeful sign in the face of dwindling shark populations in the wild.
More than 100 million sharks in the wild 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 under threat, he said.
With the successful insemination, "we are pushing the boundaries of knowledge," Hampton said. "It's beneficial to the species as a whole."
Biologists will move the baby sharks from their behind-the-scenes nursery to the Shark Lagoon exhibit before the aquarium opens Tuesday morning. The pair's mother, Fern, swims in the large exhibit in the same area.
Although the zebra shark pups are a first for the aquarium, the facility has had success with artificial insemination in other shark species in the past. Bamboo shark babies born from artificial insemination hatched for the first time a few years ago, according to Lance Adams, the aquarium's veterinarian. Only two other countries have successfully attempted the method on sharks, he said: Japan and Australia.
Aquarium scientists in Long Beach are currently testing artificial insemination on blacktip reef sharks, which give live birth 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 different shark DNA and create more diverse shark communities. That diversity could lead to a more sustainable population with fewer abnormalities and birth defects.
Artificial insemination could also prevent extinction, he added.
"If a certain breed became endangered," he said, "if we have a sustainable population in captivity, we can reintroduce it into the wild."