A black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Ann is the first of any native endangered animal species in North America to be cloned.
Her successful cloning is the culmination of a yearslong collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the biotechnology nonprofit Revive & Restore, the for-profit company ViaGen Pets & Equine, San Diego Zoo Global and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Cloned siblings are on the way, and potential (cloned) mates are already being lined up. If successful, the project could bring needed genetic diversity to the endangered species. And it marks another promising advance in the wider effort to use cloning to retrieve an ever-growing number of species from the brink of extinction.
In the early 1900s, black-footed ferrets burrowed throughout the American West, according to Pete Gober, the Fish and Wildlife Service's national black-footed ferret recovery coordinator. But the ferrets vanished after their primary food source, prairie dogs, were nearly wiped out by poisoning, plague and habitat loss.
The species was thought to be extinct in the wild until 1981, when a ranch dog named Shep dropped a dead black-footed ferret on a porch near Meeteetse, Wyo. The rancher's wife took the dead ferret to a local taxidermist, who alerted the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The newly discovered population flourished for a few years but was nearly extinguished by canine distemper and sylvatic plague, a disease from the same bacterium that causes bubonic plague in humans.
In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service approached Revive & Restore to explore how biotechnology could help increase the genetic diversity of black-footed ferrets. In 2018, the nonprofit received the first-ever permit to research cloning an endangered species. Revive & Restore partnered with the commercial cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine to design the cloning process.