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Move over Dolly, there’s a new clone in town and her name is Elizabeth Ann the Black-Footed ferret. You read that right; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced on Thursday that it had successfully cloned the first U.S. endangered species.
Elizabeth Ann was born on December 10, 2020, and is being raised in a facility in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Not only does this successful cloning have big implications for science and genetics, but also gives conservationists hope that the black-footed ferret won’t be the last threatened species to be resurrected this way.
Why This Matters: Once thought to be extinct, the species has been given a second chance due to conservation efforts from the government, zoos, Indigenous groups, conservation organizations, and private citizens. Unfortunately, the species still has a long way to go and has only 300 living animals left. Many other species are staring down the barrel of extinction, including the Northern White rhino, of which only two females remain.
One-third of all species could face extinction before 2070 and experts say the world may be facing another “mass extinction event.” Experts are excited about the many other species that could benefit from successful cloning programs, but also emphasize that conservation efforts must continue to fight primary threats like habitat destruction and poaching.
Spitting Image: Elizabeth Ann was created from the frozen cells of another Black-Footed Ferret, Willa, who lived 30 years ago. The technique used to clone Willa was also used to clone a Mongolian wild horse in a Texas facility previously. Willa, one of the last wild Black-Footed ferrets, had her DNA preserved by The Wyoming Game & Fish Department and transferred to the San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo in 1988. Preserving endangered animal DNA isn’t uncommon. When Sudan, the last male Northern White rhino passed, his caretakers rushed to preserve his skin and sperm in the hopes that one day his DNA could be used to resurrect the species.
Noreen Walsh, Director of the USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region said in a statement, “although this research is preliminary, it is the first cloning of a native endangered species in North America, and it provides a promising tool for continued efforts to conserve the black-footed ferret.”
One key benefit of cloning could be to increase the biological diversity of endangered species. Currently, all Black-Footed ferrets are descended from seven individuals (excluding Willa), which has left them vulnerable to diseases and health disorders. Cloning deceased individuals can help reintroduce genetic traits into the main population, strengthening the species and giving individuals a better chance at survival.
In the meantime, Walsh warns that cloning isn’t a deus ex machina. “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,” she said.
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