Two more endangered ferrets are gene copies of creatures frozen in the 1980s

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Two more black-footed ferrets have been cloned from the genes used for the first clone of an endangered species in the US, bringing to three the number of devious predators genetically identical to one of the last animals found in the United States comes. wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.

Attempts to breed the first clone, a female named Elizabeth Ann, born in 2021, have failed, but the recent births of two more cloned females, named Noreen and Antonia, coupled with a captive breeding program that began in the 1980s was launched, increases hopes for diversification of endangered species. Genetic diversity can improve a species’ ability to adapt and survive despite disease outbreaks and changing environmental conditions.

Energetic and curious, black-footed ferrets are a nocturnal species of weasel with dark eye markings that resemble a robber’s mask. Their prey are prairie dogs, and the ferrets hunt the rodents in often extensive burrow colonies on the plains.

Black-footed ferrets are now a conservation success story; After being virtually exterminated in the wild, thousands of them have been bred in captivity since the 1990s and reintroduced to dozens of locations in the western US, Canada and Mexico.

Because they feed exclusively on prairie dogs, they have fallen victim to attempts by farmers and ranchers to poison and shoot the land-churning rodents – so much so that they were thought to be extinct until a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead one to brought home. western Wyoming in 1981. Conservationists then managed to capture seven more and establish a breeding program.

But their gene pool is small – all known black-footed ferrets today are descendants of these seven animals – so diversification of the species is crucial.

Noreen and Antonia, like Elizabeth Ann, are genetically identical to Willa, one of the original seven. Willa’s remains — frozen in the 1980s and preserved at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Frozen Zoo — could help conservation efforts because her genes contain roughly three times more unique variations than currently found in black-footed ferrets, according to the Fish and Wildlife Employ.

Elizabeth Ann still lives at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, but she cannot breed because of a problem with her reproductive organs that is not the result of cloning, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement.

Biologists plan to breed Noreen and Antonia later this year after they reach adulthood.

The ferrets were born last May at the ferret conservation center. The Fish and Wildlife Service waited nearly a year to announce the births, amid ongoing scientific work, other black-footed ferret breeding efforts and the agency’s other priorities, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Joe Szuszwalak said, per e-mail.

“Science takes time and does not happen instantaneously,” Szuszwalak wrote.

Cloning involves creating a new plant or animal by copying the genes of an existing animal. To clone these three ferrets, the Fish and Wildlife Service worked with zoo and conservation organizations and ViaGen Pets & Equine, a Texas company that clones horses for $85,000 and dogs for $50,000.

The company has also cloned the Przewalski’s wild horse, a species from Mongolia.