Cloned Ferret Marks a First in the US

Scientists are seeking to add more genetic diversity in the population
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 20, 2021 12:05 PM CST
Some Good News for Black-Footed Ferrets
In this photo provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service is Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and first-ever cloned US endangered species, at 50-days old on Jan. 29, 2021. Scientists have cloned the first US endangered species.   (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

A black-footed ferret that died more than 30 years ago has been resurrected—in a way. Scientists used cells from a ferret named Willa, which died in 1988, to create a clone, NBC reports, marking a first for an endangered animal native to the US. Black-footed ferrets—the only ferret native to North America—were once common in the American West, per National Geographic. However, their numbers dwindled as farmers and ranchers sought to eradicate their main food source, prairie dogs. The ferrets were believed to be extinct by the 1970s. In the early ‘80s, scientists found a colony of 18 black-footed ferrets in Wyoming, according to NBC. Scientists used animals from that population to start a breeding program that has released thousands of ferrets around North America. All black-footed ferrets around today are descendants from seven individuals, the Fish & Wildlife Service said in a statement, “resulting in unique genetic challenges to recovering this species.”

Lack of genetic diversity can make a species more susceptible to diseases and abnormalities. “Cloning may help address significant genetic diversity and disease resilience barriers to support habitat conservation and reestablishment of additional populations in the wild,” the agency said. When Willa died, samples of her tissue were sent for preservation at the Frozen Zoo, a San Diego Zoo Global program that cryopreserves samples from more than 1,000 rare and endangered animals. Willa’s clone, Elizabeth Ann, was born Dec. 10 via a domestic ferret surrogate. Willa’s genes have three times the genetic diversity as ferrets living today, per the FWS. And that diversity has been passed onto Elizabeth Ann. FWS researchers will care for and study Elizabeth Ann at a facility in Colorado, per CNN. Plans are underway to produce more black-footed ferret clones. (More animal cloning stories.)

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