Elizabeth Ann is the first endangered American animal to be cloned. She is a black-footed ferret who reportedly came from the frozen cells of an ancestor who lived more than 30 years ago, named Willa.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed Elizabeth Ann to the world on Thursday. Born to a surrogate mother, the success of her cloning is “a landmark achievement that boosts conservation efforts,” according to CNN. Scientists hope that she will one day be able to mate and help save the species from going extinct.
Black-footed ferrets are one of North America’s most endangered species.
The National Park Service explains that black-footed ferrets were declared extinct in 1980 when the last captive ferret of its kind died. The following year, however, a ranch dog in Wyoming killed a black-footed ferret and the species was rediscovered. It was determined that about 130 black-footed ferrets were thriving on a Wyoming farm, but by 1987 only 18 remained. Scientists captured the remaining ferrets and used the population to reintroduce black-footed ferrets to various states, Canada, and Mexico.
According to NPS:
The species is still at risk from disease, loss of habitat, and related declines in prey.
Predators of the Black Footed Ferret include golden eagles, owls, coyotes, badgers, and bobcats. While it’s normal for small animals to have so many predators, reintroduced ferrets are at a heightened risk because animals raised in captivity typically lack some survival skills.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reportedly said that all black-footed ferrets currently living are descended from only seven individuals. This creates unique difficulties when scientists attempt to recover them from the edge of extinction. Elizabeth Ann’s potential offspring would diversify the species.
“Without an appropriate amount of genetic diversity, a species often becomes more susceptible to diseases and genetic abnormalities,” the agency said in a statement.
The conservation organization Revive & Restore was also involved in the project. Executive director Ryan Phelan said, “Genomics revealed the genetic value that Willa could bring to her species…But 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.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released photos and videos of the cloned ferret on Thursday.
Additional footage of the lovely Elizabeth Anne. 🙂 pic.twitter.com/fz7HnwyI1F
— US Fish and Wildlife (@USFWSMtnPrairie) February 18, 2021
Elizabeth Ann’s birth might remind some of the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, who was the first mammal to ever be cloned from adult animal cells.
Since then, other mammals have been cloned, including cats, deer, dogs, horses, mules, rabbits, and others, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.
As reported by CNN, last summer, endangered black-footed ferrets received experimental Covid-19 vaccinations in an effort to protect them from extinction.
Elizabeth Ann will be cared for by specialists at an FWS facility in Colorado where she will continue to be studied. The team there is reportedly at work trying to produce more black-footed ferret clones in the coming months as part of their research.