The world’s first black-footed ferret clone could help its species avoid extinction

And she is looking for her valentine.
Derya Ozdemir
Elizabeth Ann playing on her first birthday.USFWS National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center

The world's first cloned black-footed ferret, Elizabeth Ann, is set to make history — again.

It recently had her first birthday and reached an age at which she can begin to breed, which means, if she is successful and produces healthy offspring, the adorable predator will provide a vital boost to conservation efforts for her critically endangered species.

This is part of an effort to boost genetic diversity in wild ferret colonies, which are under threat from inbreeding, which degrades reproductive fitness, due to their small population size.

If Elizabeth Ann gives birth to healthy ferret babies, it will be the first time conservation biologists have successfully integrated cloning into an endeavor to save a species from extinction.

The first cloned mammal to help save endangered species

Elizabeth Ann was cloned and brought to life using the frozen cells of Willa, another black-footed ferret that died 35 years ago. She was born on December 10, 2020, from a surrogate ferret, and now, she is one of the first clones of an endangered species to attain sexual maturity.

One of the most crucial things about her is that her DNA contains multiple forms of the genes that predominate in the breeding program's inbred ferrets. This has prompted hopes that her children could significantly improve the genetic viability of black-footed ferrets, "making her a treasure trove of genetic diversity".

She is being held at a conservation center near Fort Collins, Colorado; however, finding a mate for her won't be easy. The scientists will need to be exceedingly cautious when searching for possible partners for her since mating is rarely easy in wildlife. The scientists are specifically seeking a male ferret who displays one essential characteristic: gentleness.

"When it comes to black-footed ferrets, the mating scenario can get a little rough and we don’t want Elizabeth Ann to be injured. She is precious," Oliver Ryder, director of genetics conservation at San Diego Zoo, told the Observer. "So we need an experienced male who has already produced offspring and who is therefore not going to be infertile – a problem that affects many black-footed ferret males today. In addition, we will select him for his gentleness."

The Bachelor: The ferret edition

This month, the scientists will compile a list and choose their favorite. The lucky bachelor will be brought to Colorado, and hopefully, their courtship will end in success as nature takes its course.

However, just in case, the scientists will collect a semen sample so that they can use to artificially inseminate Elizabeth Ann. Then, one day, scientists want to breed her male offspring with a captive black-footed female to ferret out any domestic genes. The scientists hope that this will increase the species' genetic variety and reverse its reproductive decline.

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