On December 10th 2020, Elizabeth Ann, a black footed ferret, was born in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.
She is the genetic copy of another black footed ferret named Willa that passed away in 1988. Upon her passing, Willa’s cells were frozen using early DNA technology. Through in-vitro fertilization, Elizabeth Ann was able to be carried by a surrogate mother, a domestic ferret of a different species.
According to Noreen Walsh, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s mountain-prairie region, this is the first cloning of an endangered species in North America. Although they have come a long way, black footed ferrets remain an endangered species.
In 1981, the species was on the verge of complete extinction until a group of scientists in Wyoming gathered the few remaining specimens for a breeding program that has since released thousands of ferrets into the wild in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Almost 25 generations of black footed ferrets can trace their lineage to the seven individuals from 40 years ago. With the birth of Elizabeth Ann, there is a bit more genetic diversity.
According to Ben Novak, “She brings an eighth gene pool, essentially, into this population. This is just a huge paradigm shift in this type of work.”
The ferret will soon be joined by “sister clones” as well as male ones in hopes that they will mate.
By Angélique Chu