A black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann has become the first endangered species native to North America to ever be cloned, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said Thursday.
Scientists used frozen cells from a ferret named Willa that lived more than 30 years ago to bring Elizabeth Ann into the world in December. She was born and is being raised at a Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.
USFWS called the cloning a “groundbreaking effort” to explore solutions to help recover the endangered species.
Officials say all black-footed ferrets are descended from seven individuals, which has resulted in unique genetic challenges to recover the species. They believe cloning could help address significant genetic diversity and disease resilience barriers to support habitat conservation and reestablishment of additional populations in the wild.
Without an appropriate amount of genetic diversity, officials say a species often becomes more susceptible to diseases and genetic abnormalities, as well as limited adaptability to conditions in the wild and a decreased fertility rate.
Black-footed ferrets were once thought to be extinct, but they were brought back from nearly vanishing forever by USFWS and its partners after a Wyoming rancher discovered a small population on his land in 1981.
Willa was among the last wild ferrets and has no living descendants, meaning she’s not one of the seven founders and has different genetics.
A genomic study revealed Willa’s genome possessed three times more unique variations than the living population. Therefore, if Elizabeth Ann successfully mates and reproduces, she could provide unique genetic diversity to the species.
“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, and we’re proud to make this announcement today,” said Noreen Walsh, Director of the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, where the Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center is located. “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.”