Ferret Who Died 30 Years Ago Becomes America’s First Endangered Animal To Be Cloned
An endangered ferret has been successfully cloned 30 years after its death, in what scientists have described as a landmark moment marking a ‘new era’ for conservation efforts.
Frozens cells from the black-footed ferret – named Willa – were used to produce the first clone of an endangered American animal, with scientists hoping that the clone, called Elizabeth Anne, will eventually be able to mate and reproduce to help rescue her species from extinction.
One of America’s most endangered animals, the black-footed ferret was actually declared officially extinct in 1979, before the discovery of a small population living in Wyoming two years later prompted efforts to establish a breeding program to ensure their survival. The species is so fragile that around 120 black-footed ferrets even received an experimental Covid-19 vaccine in August last year in an attempt to prevent the virus from potentially killing off even more of the animals.
Elizabeth Ann – who according to CNN was carried by a surrogate ferret mother and delivered in December – marks an important moment in hopes for the black-footed ferret’s future, as her unique origins offer a way to help diversify the species.
Up until now, all surviving black-footed ferrets have been descended from the same seven animals – a level of inbreeding that carries an increased risk of disease and genetic mutations due to a weakened immune system among the species.
‘Without an appropriate amount of genetic diversity, a species often becomes more susceptible to diseases and genetic abnormalities,’ the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said in a statement, adding that ‘it was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Anne’.
While Willa is far from the first animal to be cloned, she is the first whose cloning was done as part of efforts to conserve an endangered species. In an announcement revealing Elizabeth Anne to the world on Thursday, February 18, the FWS described the successful cloning as ‘a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue,’ and said that she would be kept under observation at a specialist facility where breeding efforts could be better monitored than in the wild. The service also said they hoped to produce more ferret clones in the coming months.
There are currently an estimated 300 ferrets living in captivity, around half of which are kept in the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Centre where Elizabeth Anne was born. Another 400 have been reintroduced into the wild.
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