In a joint scientific effort to recover the endangered species of black-footed ferrets, scientists were able to clone a black-footed ferret from frozen cell samples taken over 30 years ago, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced.
The ground-breaking scientific achievement was made in early December last year with the birth of Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and first-ever cloned US endangered species. She was created from the frozen cells of Willa, a black-footed ferret that died more than 30 years ago.
“Although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America, and it provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret,” said Noreen Walsh, director of the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the Mountain-Prairie Region, where the national Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center is located.
According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, all black-footed ferrets living today are descended from only seven individuals. This means that using genetic cloning in order increase genetic diversity is uniquely challenging.
"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," a press release by the service noted.
Therefore, Walsh stressed that “successful genetic cloning does not diminish the importance of addressing habitat-based threats to the species." Walsh noted that the service's recovery plan for black-footed ferrets also focuses on "habitat conservation and management" while using "assisted reproductive techniques" and encouraging the "incorporation of any newly discovered black-footed ferrets into the current captive population."
The story of black-footed ferrets is one characterized by survival against all odds. Up until 1981, they were thought to be extinct. But that year, a Wyoming rancher discovered a small population on his land, consisting of 18 individuals, leading to a concentrated effort to recover the species.
The unprecedented birth of Elizabeth Ann could be a big step in that direction.
A study revealed that the genome of Willa, which was used for cloning Elizabeth Ann, possessed three times unique variations than most of the living black-footed ferrets population, indicating that if Elizabeth Ann successfully reproduces she could provide well-needed diversity to the species.
This scientific achievement was made possible due to the innovative partnership between the US Fish & Wildlife Service and species recovery experts from Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.