Fern is the name of a 20-year-old, 140-pound, 7.5-foot-long female shark living at the Aquarium of the Pacific, in Long Beach, California, near Los Angeles and she's just become unique among all the sharks of her species. She's a zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum), a species classified as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN.

In the wild, zebra sharks can be found throughout the Indo-Pacific, even as far as the Red Sea, and even though they aren't directly targeted by commercial fisheries, they are still threatened by human activities. On a local scale, zebra sharks are caught for their meat and liver oil (from which vitamins are extracted), and for their fins. Being a bottom-dwelling species, these charismatic sharks are also particularly susceptible to capture by prawn trawls.

In an effort to understand more about the species and to guard against severe population declines, researchers working in aquariums have been trying to breed them. Learning more about their reproductive biology could help with conservation efforts if they become even further threatened.

And that's why Fern is so special. She was artificially inseminated in September 2013 and in March of that year, two shark pups successfully hatched from her eggs. She's the first zebra shark to ever successfully reproduce through artificial insemination.

Next month, visitors will finally have the chance to see the juveniles, which are now between 2.5 and 3 feet long, in the aquarium's Shark Lagoon.

Top header image: Die Thukrals, Flickr