Black Footed Ferret Cloned in US First
Posted By : The Animal Facts Editorial Team
Date: February 19, 2021 7:30 pm
Elizabeth Ann the cloned black-footed ferret is cared for by her mother
Photo Credit: USFWS
On December 10th 2020 a partnership of conservation organizations celebrated a major milestone in their efforts to conserve black-footed ferrets with the birth of Elizabeth Ann. She was cloned from the frozen cells of a ferret known as “Willa” who lived almost 30 years ago.
This effort was achieved through a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and species recovery partners and scientists at Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“The Service sought the expertise of valued recovery partners to help us explore how we might overcome genetic limitations hampering recovery of the black-footed ferret, and we’re proud to make this announcement today,” said Noreen Walsh, director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, where the Service’s Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center is located.
“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.
“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,” Walsh continued.
“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.”
Currently all black-footed ferrets alive today are descended from seven individuals. These were among the last living individuals when the species went extinct in the wild. The low numbers led to unique genetic challenges for the species. It may increase the risk of disease and genetic abnormalities. This will increase the difficulty in recovering the species.
Black footed ferrets were considered extinct in the wild before a Wyoming rancher discovered a small population on his land in 1981. Some of them were captured and became the nucleus of a captive breeding project.
This program has faced limitations from species’ genetic diversity. Willa was among the last wild individuals but has no living descendants. Luckily some of her genes were preserved by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. They sent tissue samples from her to San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo® in 1988.
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“San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo was created more than 40 years ago, with the hope that it would provide solutions to future conservation challenges,” said Oliver Ryder, director of Conservation Genetics, San Diego Zoo Global. “We are delighted that we have been able to cryobank and, years later, provide viable cell cultures for this groundbreaking project.”
Willa has three times more unique variations in her genome than the living population. Therefore if her clone, Elizabeth Ann mates and reproduces it may increase the genetic diversity of the species.
“We’ve come a long way since 2013, when we began the funding, permitting, design and development of this project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Ryan Phelan, executive director of Revive & Restore. “Genomics revealed the genetic value that Willa could bring to her species. But it was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann. 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.”
Revive and Restore were issued the first every recovery permit allowing cloning research of an endangered species in 2018 and began to work on the program.
“The ability to utilize our proven Somatic Cell Nuclear Technology to enable the cloning of such an ecologically important species is a great privilege,” said Blake Russell, president of ViaGen Pets & Equine.
Elizabeth Ann was born to a surrogate mother who was implanted at ViaGen Pets & Equine before being transferred to the Service’s National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (NBFFCC) mid-gestation, to give birth to the cloned kit under the Service’s authority. The staff at this center have the experience needed to successfully welcome and care for the kit.
Currently the kit is being monitored for viability and other developments. Elizabeth Ann will remain at the center to undergo additional research. More clones will be produced in the coming months to continue the research efforts.
Elizabeth Ann the black-footed ferret clone
Photo Credit: USFWS