The black-footed ferret is the only species of ferret native to North America. In the late 1980s, they were thought to be globally extinct due to the drop in prairie dog populations (their main source of food) due to farming, habitat loss, and disease.

A rancher found a small population of them on his property in 1981, and environmentalists immediately captured them to secure them to a safe area and where they could breed. There are approximately 650 alive today in two locations.

However, only seven of those original ferrets were able to reproduce; so all those alive today are their direct descendants. This lcak of diversity and without new blood, it is unlikely for the species to survive much longer.

The researchers found a way to overcome this problem – by cloning a black-footed ferret using frozen tissue stored as part of the San Diego Zoo Global project.

The researchers made the clone as a copy of a wild female black-footed ferret that had been named Willa who died in the mid-1800s. The cloning began in 2013, progressing slowly since then, and resulted in the birth of a cloned kit in December 2020 at a conservation center in Colorado. It was named Elizabeth Ann and will be raised by staff, until she is ready to be mated with some of the surviving black-footed ferrets.

“The birth of Elizabeth Ann could help address genetic barriers faced by many imperiled wildlife,” stated US Fish and Wildlife on Twitter.

Elizabeth Ann will not be released into the wild, but will be raised in the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado.

“It was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann. 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,” they added.

This represents the first effort in the US to clone an endangered species to help it survive.

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