Feb 20, 2021 - Science

Scientists clone first U.S. endangered species

Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and first-ever cloned U.S. endangered species, at 26 days old.
Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret and first-ever cloned U.S. endangered species, at 26 days old. Photo: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that scientists cloned the first U.S. endangered species, a black-footed ferret duplicated from an animal that died more than 30 years ago.

Why it matters: Cloning could be a technique to help recover black-footed ferrets and other endangered or extinct species.

Details: The predator named Elizabeth Ann was born on Dec. 10 and is being raised at a Fish and Wildlife Service breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.

  • She is a copy of a ferret named Willa who died in 1988 whose remains had been frozen.
  • Her birth was the result of a partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

What they're saying: “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 Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region.

  • “Successful genetic cloning does not diminish the importance of addressing habitat-based threats to the species or the Fish and Wildlife Service’s focus on addressing habitat conservation and management to recover black-footed ferrets.”

Of note: Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until a Wyoming rancher discovered a small population on his land in 1981.

  • Those ferrets were taken by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and others to start a captive breeding program to recover the species.

The big picture: All black-footed ferrets living today are descended from seven individuals, meaning the species currently lacks genetic diversity, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

  • That may make fully recovering the black-footed ferrets difficult.
  • A species that lacks genetic diversity can be more susceptible to diseases, genetic abnormalities and decreased fertility rates and may unable to adapt to changing conditions in the wild.
  • However, cloning may help address genetic diversity and disease resilience barriers for the species by introducing more diversity in the population.
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