Conservation in the United States took a big step recently when U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) announced it had successfully cloned the first endangered species native to North America: the black-footed ferret.
USFW announced the cloning on Feb. 18, saying it had cloned a new ferret, Elizabeth Ann, from stored tissue taken from a black-footed ferret that died more than 30 years ago.
“It just brings hope,” said Kimberly Fraser, an outreach specialist for USFW.
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct until 1981 when a rancher in Wyoming found a body of a deceased one on his front porch. That rancher took the remains to a taxidermist, who alerted U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and for a few years, the population flourished, until disease wiped out all but 20 in 1987.
Of those 20, two died and their tissue was stored in San Diego for decades until scientists received a permit to try and clone the endangered animal in 2018.
“Here we are, 30-some years later, and the technology is such that they can take that material from 1987 and clone a ferret,” said Fraser.
Since 1991, 300 black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced into the wild, but they are all essentially half-siblings since they stem from seven unique ferrets.
Kimberly Ann resembles an eighth, meaning genetic diversity among the species is set to increase once she is able to breed in a few years.
“With respect to the reintroduction efforts we’re trying to establish in the wild has a very limited genetic pool,” said Pete Gober, the black-footed ferret recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “When you have a limited genetic diversity, you have less resilience to various kinds of challenges in the environment.”
Elizabeth Ann is the first cloned animal native to North America and the second cloned endangered animal ever.