Scientists Announce First Successful Clone of a US Endangered Species

by Jennifer Shea

Scientists have cloned an endangered animal for the first time in U.S. history.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that scientists have successfully cloned a black-footed ferret, UPI reports.

Ferret Is First Successful Clone of an Endangered Species

The ferret, Elizabeth Ann, came into the world on Dec. 10, 2020. Scientists cloned her from the frozen cells of Willa, a black-footed ferret who died more than 30 years ago.

The cloning process also entailed the use of a domesticated ferret, according to Fox News. Unfortunately, a second cloned ferret did not survive. But Elizabeth Ann made it through.

Black-footed ferrets are the only native species of ferret in North America. They have dark eye stripes similar to an old-school robber’s mask. What’s more, the animals are nocturnal. They eat prairie dogs by infiltrating the small rodents’ burrow colonies.

Conservationists believed the species was globally extinct at one point, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But concerted recovery efforts have boosted the population of black-footed ferrets to nearly 300 animals across North America.

The cloning effort was a partnership between FWS and scientists from Revive & Restore, ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“The Service sought the expertise of valued recovery partners to help us explore how we might overcome genetic limitations hampering recovery of the black-footed ferret,” Noreen Walsh, Director of the FWS’s Mountain-Prairie Region, where the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center is located, said in a statement. “And we’re proud to make this announcement today.”  

However, “successful genetic cloning does not diminish the importance of addressing habitat-based threats to the species or the Service’s focus on addressing habitat conservation and management to recover black-footed ferrets,” she added.

Genetic Diversity Is Key to Survival

Willa’s cells had been cryopreserved at San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo. The program has gathered DNA samples from roughly 1,100 endangered species across the world, per National Geographic.

All of the currently living black-footed ferrets are descended from seven original wild animals. Because of this, scientists are hoping that Elizabeth Ann can bring some genetic diversity to the black-footed ferret population.

A genomic study showed the scientists that Willa’s genome offered three times more unique variations than the current population of black-footed ferrets.

“It was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann,” Revive & Restore Executive Director Ryan Phelan said in a statement. “To see her now thriving ushers in a new era for her species and for conservation-dependent species everywhere. She is a win for biodiversity and for genetic rescue.”

Moreover, a lack of genetic diversity can cause increased vulnerability to diseases and genetic abnormalities. It can even lead to declines in adaptability.

The black-footed ferret population still will face threats to its continued survival from the sylvatic plague, a bacterial disease that strikes rodents in rural environments. It also has to contend with drops in the prairie dog population.