One of the most endangered animals in the US got a boost with the birth of a cloned black-footed ferret.
Born on December 10, ‘Elizabeth Ann’ is the first successful clone of an endangered species in North America.
She was created using cells from a female black-footed ferret that died more than 30 years ago and gestated in a surrogate domestic ferret.
Zoologists say Elizabeth Ann is doing well, having already grown a coat of fur and has started exploring her surroundings at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (NBFCC) in Carr, Colorado.
If Elizabeth Ann breeds as an adult, she will greatly increase the species limited genetic diversity and improve its chances for survival.
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Elizabeth Ann, black-footed ferret clone, explores her surroundings at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colorado. Born December 10, she is the first successful clone of an endangered species in the United States
Elizabeth Ann is something of a medical miracle and represents renewed hope for her species.
Currently, all black-footed ferrets are descended from the same seven individuals, resulting in a dangerously low level of genetic diversity.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, limited genetic diversity makes it extremely difficult to fully recover a species.
‘Without an appropriate amount of genetic diversity, a species often becomes more susceptible to diseases and genetic abnormalities, as well as limited adaptability to conditions in the wild and a decreased fertility rate,’ the agency said.
Elizabeth Ann was cloned from genetic material from Willa, a ferret captured in the wild more than 30 years ago
The clone’s genetic donor, Willa, wasn’t one of those seven ancestors, so if Elizabeth Ann successfully mates it will greatly strengthen the species’ gene pool.
In fact, genetic testing indicates Willa’s genome possessed three times more variations than the living population.
In 2018, the Wildlife Service granted the first-ever permit to clone an endangered species to Revive and Rescue, a California-based nonprofit that uses genetic techniques to help endangered and extinct species.
To avoid putting a black-footed female, or jill, at risk, eggs from a sedated domestic ferret were altered to include Willa’s genetic material.
The embryos that were then implanted into another domestic ferret, who acted as Elizabeth Ann’s surrogate.
There are less than 500 black-footed ferrets in the wild. Conservationists call Elizabeth Ann’s birth ‘a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue.’ Pictured:
It’s similar to the process used a quarter-century ago to create Dolly, the cloned sheep, except this time the surrogate was from a different species.
‘It was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann,’ said Revive and Rescue executive director Ryan Phelan.
‘To see her now thriving ushers in a new era for her species and for conservation-dependent species everywhere. She is a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue.’
Elizabeth Ann and her surrogate mother will stay at the NBFCC, where they are being kept separate from other ferrets.
The black-footed ferret was listed as endangered in 1967 and considered extinct in the wild in 1979. A Wyoming rancher discovered a small population in 1981, which was used to start a breeding program
Researchers hope to produce more black-footed ferret clones in the coming months as part of continuing research efforts.
Conservationists are also looking for more ferrets in the wild to add to that diversity.
‘Maintaining and increasing wild populations and suitable habitat continues to be essential for black-footed ferret recovery and will remain a priority for the Service,’ said Noreen Walsh, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.
Elizabeth Ann enjoys a lunch of prairie dog. The rodent, the black-footed ferret’s chief food source, has been almost wiped out by a flea-borne plague
‘Successful genetic cloning does not diminish the importance of addressing habitat-based threats to the species or the Service’s focus on addressing habitat conservation and management to recover black-footed ferrets.’
About the size of a house cat, the black-footed ferret spends much of its time underground, preying almost exclusively on prairie dogs.
Conservationists have fought valiantly to preserve the critically endangered animal for decades: The black-footed ferret was listed as endangered in 1967 and considered extinct in the wild in 1979.
A Wyoming rancher discovered a small population of ferrets on his ranch in 1981, and animals from this group — including Willa — were used to start a breeding program.
In 1988, Tissue samples from Willa were sent to San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, which maintains a ‘catalog’ of genetic material from over a thousand endangered species.
That enabled scientists to eventually clone Elizabeth Ann.
But cloning is just one way conservationists are trying to save the black-footed ferret: In 2015, frozen sperm from a long-deceased ferret was used to father eight kits.
When the donor, Scarface, died in the 1980s he was one of just 18 of the creatures left in the world.
There are now thought to be 400 or 500 in the wild, with numbers rising gradually thanks to conservation efforts by zoos, wildlife organizations and Native American tribes.
To avoid putting a black-footed female, or jill, at risk, domestic ferrets were used as both the clone’s egg donor and surrogate. Pictured: Elizabeth Ann and her step-siblings nursing from her surrogate
But the species is still threatened by habitat loss a decrease in the number of prairie dogs, their chief food source, caused by a bacterial infection known as sylvatic plague.
The ferrets also use the rodents’ burrows for shelter.
‘The entire species’ survival depends on successful captive management to ensure healthy genetics over the next 100 years and to produce individuals for the reintroduction program,’ Rachel Santymire, a zoologist at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo said in 2015.
‘To balance out these demands on the breeding program, we have to ensure that each individual ferret passes its genes on to the next generation.’
WHY IS THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET AT RISK?
Black-footed ferret populations have severely dwindled in the last century, as illustrated above
According to the US Geological Survey , black-footed ferrets once thrived across mid-continent North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico.
Over the last century, their numbers have dwindled, causing them to be presumed extinct on more than one occasion.
Their last known range has now been limited to a small region in Wyoming.
Conservationists have worked hard to reintroduce these populations into the wild, spanning the US, Mexico, and Canada, but the outbreaks of sylvatic plague threaten their survival.
This flea-borne plague has wiped out more than 95 percent of the prairie dog population, which ferrets rely on for food and for shelter in their burrows.
Black-footed ferrets once thrived across mid-continent North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico