A black-footed ferret has been cloned, a first for a U.S. endangered species
You’ve probably heard of Dolly the sheep. Now, meet Elizabeth Ann, the black-footed ferret.
Scientists have successfully cloned an endangered black-footed ferret, using preserved cells from a long-dead wild animal. This is the first time any native endangered species has been cloned in the United States.
The advance is a milestone for the conservation of black-footed ferrets, North America’s only native ferret. This species was once found over vast swathes of the American West, but they dwindled as farmers and ranchers eliminated their primary prey, prairie dogs. By the 1970s they were thought to be extinct. Then, in 1981, a ranch dog led scientists to a colony of 18 on a property in Wyoming.
Those survivors became the basis of a captive-breeding program managed in part by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado, and the animals have since been reintroduced to eight states in the Great Plains. But only seven of the original wild animals bred, and all living ferrets are closely related. Their wild population today is roughly 400 to 500, says Pete Gober, black-footed ferret recovery coordinator for the service.
This new clone is a genetic copy of a wild female named Willa, who died in the mid-1980s in Wyoming and has no living descendants. Her cells have been cryopreserved at the Frozen Zoo, a program of San Diego Zoo Global that has collected samples from some 1,100 rare and endangered species worldwide. Researchers hope to breed Elizabeth Ann and introduce her offspring into the wild to inject much-needed genetic diversity into the population.
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