In an amazing feat for conservation efforts, researchers have successfully cloned a highly endangered ferret species using the cells of an animal that died more than three decades ago.
Meet Elizabeth Ann, the black-footed ferret clone that marks the first time any native endangered species has been cloned in the United States. While the baby ferret (also known as a kit) was brought into the world by a domestic surrogate ferret mom, its genes are the exact copy of a wild ferret named Willa, who died in 1998.
Elizabeth Ann’s cloning represents a milestone for the conservation of black-footed ferrets. Their population reached near extinction a few decades ago after ranchers had wiped out prairie dog colonies (the main prey of the black-footed ferret) because they made the land less suitable for cattle.
Conservationists then gathered the remaining population for a captive-breeding program that has released thousands of ferrets at dozens of sites in North America since the 1990s. But because those black-footed ferrets are closely related to one another they are extremely vulnerable to being wiped out by a parasite or disease.
Willa wasn’t closely related to the bred ferrets. When she died, her cells were sent to a “frozen zoo” run by San Diego Zoo Global that has collected samples from more than 1,100 endangered species and subspecies worldwide. The researchers hope that by introducing Elizabeth Ann and other future Willa clones into the wild, they will be able to diversify their genes in the wild and help their species survive.