First, there was Dolly the sheep. A cow, cat, deer, dog, horse, mule, ox, rabbit, and rat soon followed. Now U.S. scientists have successfully cloned a ferret. The procedure marks the first time scientists have cloned a native endangered species in the United States.
Black-footed ferret recovery efforts took a bold step on December 10. That’s when a ferret named Elizabeth Ann was born. The ferret came from the frozen cells of Willa, a black-footed ferret that lived more than 30 years ago, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America,” says Noreen Walsh, director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region. “It provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret.”
The species, North America’s only native ferret, was once thought to be extinct. But it was brought back from nearly vanishing forever after a Wyoming rancher discovered a small population on his land in 1981. Wildlife experts captured the animals and began a captive breeding program to recover the species.
However, only seven of the original wild animals bred. Today, all living ferrets are closely related. That puts limitations on the species’ genetic diversity, a key part of survival. Limited genetic diversity creates challenges for hardiness in changing environments and with emerging disease threats.
Elizabeth Ann is a genetic copy of Willa, a black-footed ferret captured among the last wild individuals. Willa is not one of the seven so-called founders of the ferret line. The female ferret died in the 1980s and has no living descendants. Using her genes will introduce genetic diversity to the effort to boost the U.S. native ferret population.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department had the foresight to preserve Willa’s genes over 30 years ago. Officials sent tissue samples from Willa to the San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo in 1988. Years later, those genes provided viable cell cultures for the project.
The cloning team includes biotech conservation group Revive & Restore, private pet cloning company ViaGen Pets and Equine, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The group is working to produce more black-footed ferret clones in the coming months as part of continuing research efforts.
(Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and first-ever cloned U.S. endangered species, at 50 days old on January 29, 2021. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)