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Scientists Just Cloned an Endangered Ferret From 30-Year-Old Cells

The hope is to use genetic cloning as a tool to conserve endangered species on the brink of extinction.

Scientists Just Cloned an Endangered Ferret From 30-Year-Old Cells
Cloned ferret (left), and her surrogate (right) U.S. Fish and Wildlife/Twitter

Scientists have cloned a native endangered North American species for the very first time, and it's a cute black-footed ferret. 

Named Elizabeth Ann, the ferret was brought to life using the frozen cells of Willa, another black-footed ferret that died over 30 years ago. 

Elizabeth Ann was born from a surrogate ferret on December 10, and the announcement was made on Thursday, February 18, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service was part of the cloning project and is bringing her up at its breeding facility in Colorado. 

The Service partnered with species recovery partners and scientists at Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to bring Elizabeth Ann to life. 

Cloning for conservation efforts

"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.

This marks a major scientific and conservation success, as cloning could pave the way to bring back extinct species that are valuable to our habitat. 

Black-footed ferrets were of particular interest as they were thought to be extinct. The animals feed almost exclusively on prairie dogs, but as these were shot and poisoned by many ranchers to create more cattle-friendly rangelands, black-footed ferrets suffered, too.

Then one day in 1981, a ranch dog brought a dead black-footed ferret home, which was marked as a success for conservationists, who had thought them entirely extinct. The ferrets were rounded up for a captive breeding program, which ultimately released thousands of them back into the wild. 

Sadly, the lack of prairie dogs and natural habitat still poses a challenge for black-footed ferret communities. On top of that, all black-footed ferrets in North America are descendent of seven individuals, which poses unique genetic challenges, the researchers caution.

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This is where genetic cloning can hugely assist. "Cloning may help address significant genetic diversity and disease resilience barriers to support habitat conservation and reestablishment of additional populations in the wild," reads the announcement.

It's still early days in this cloning process, and it still remains to be seen if Elizabeth Ann can reproduce. But scientists are pleased with the outcome so far, given it took seven years of research and work to get to this point.

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