Scientists Clone Endangered Ferrets

2 more black-footed ferrets born, with hopes of breeding them
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 18, 2024 4:09 PM CDT
Scientists Clone Endangered Ferrets
A cloned black-footed ferret named Noreen, Feb. 19, 2024, at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colo. Two more black-footed ferrets, Noreen and Antonia, have been cloned from the genes used for the first endangered species cloned in the US.   (Kika Tuff/Revive & Restore via AP)

Two more black-footed ferrets have been cloned from the genes used for the first clone of an endangered species in the US, bringing to three the number of slinky predators genetically identical to one of the last such animals found in the wild, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday, per the AP. Efforts to breed the first clone, a female named Elizabeth Ann born in 2021, have failed, but the recent births of two more cloned females, named Noreen and Antonia, in combination with a captive breeding program launched in the 1980s, is boosting hopes of genetically diversifying the endangered species.

Energetic and curious, black-footed ferrets are a nocturnal type of weasel with dark eye markings resembling a robber's mask. Their prey is prairie dogs, and the ferrets hunt the rodents in often vast burrow colonies on the plains. Black-footed ferrets are now a conservation success story—after being all but wiped out in the wild, thousands have been bred in captivity and reintroduced in the western US, Canada, and Mexico since the 1990s. Because they feed exclusively on prairie dogs, they have been victims of farmer efforts to poison and shoot the land-churning rodents—so much so that they were thought to be extinct, until a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead one home in western Wyoming in 1981. Conservationists then managed to capture seven more and establish a breeding program.

But their gene pool is small—all known black-footed ferrets today are descendants of those seven animals—so diversifying the species is critically important. Noreen and Antonia, like Elizabeth Ann, are genetically identical to Willa, one of the original seven. Willa's remains—frozen back in the 1980s and kept at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's Frozen Zoo—could help conservation efforts because her genes contain roughly three times more unique variations than are currently found among black-footed ferrets, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Biologists at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, plan to try to breed Noreen and Antonia after they reach maturity later this year.

(More cloning stories.)

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