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Scientists clone black-footed ferret, first for endangered US species

Scientists clone black-footed ferret, first for endangered US species
© Wikimedia/J. Michael Lockhart/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on Thursday announced that it had successfully cloned a black-footed ferret, the first cloning of a U.S. endangered species.

The agency revealed the breakthrough in a press release, writing that its cloned ferret, named “Elizabeth Ann,” was born Dec. 10 and has been raised at the service’s black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colo.

The ferret was made from frozen DNA extracted from “Willa,” a black-footed ferret who died in 1988. 

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Noreen Walsh, director of the USFWS's Mountain-Prairie Region, said in a statement that while the research is preliminary, the cloning marked the first of “a native endangered species in North America, and it provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret.”

“Maintaining and increasing wild populations and suitable habitat continues to be essential for black-footed ferret recovery and will remain a priority for the Service,” Walsh said, adding that “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.”

Scientists hope the cloning could launch similar efforts to help bring back other endangered or extinct species. The Associated Press reported that the same cloning technique was used last summer for a Mongolian wild horse born at a Texas facility. 

Ben Novak, lead scientist with Revive & Restore, a biotechnology conservation nonprofit that coordinated the ferret and horse clonings, told the AP, “Biotechnology and genomic data can really make a difference on the ground with conservation efforts.” 

Pete Gober, Fish and Wildlife’s national black-footed ferret recovery coordinator, told The New York Times that black-footed ferrets burrowed throughout the American midwest in the early 1900s, but all-but vanished after their their primary food source, prairie dogs, were nearly wiped out by poisoning, plague and habitat loss. 

It was not until the 1980s that a recently dead black-footed ferret found in Wyoming led to a newly discovered population of the species, though it became further endangered due to a lack of genetic diversity, vulnerability to pathogens and health disorders from inbreeding.