Meet Elizabeth Ann, an endangered black-footed North American ferret. While she may look normal at first glance, she is actually extremely unique as she is the first endangered animal to be cloned in the United States. Being revealed only recently after being born to a surrogate in December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) shined a light on the matter as it took the world by surprise.
"Elizabeth Ann was made from the cells of Willa, another black-footed ferret who lived more than 30 years ago," the FWS states. Adding that the frozen cells of the ancestorial ferret collected by the organization were stored specifically for the landmark achievement, in a bid to help conserve the dwindling population of the black-footed ferrets.
Black-footed ferrets are in fact, one of North America's most endangered species. They were initially declared extinct in 1979 until one day when a Wyoming farmer found a small population living on his farm. After notifying the authorities very diligently, all the ferrets were taken away and put in a breeding program to try to resurrect the species. A total of 7 black-footed ferrets that were brought into the captivity mission are responsible for all of the species alive today, the FWS mentioned. As all the black-footed ferrets alive today have descended from the same ancestors, unique genetic challenges rose on the road to recovering the species. Elizabeth Ann's birth is a hopeful moment in the effort to boost its numbers because her potential offspring would diversify the species.
"Genomics revealed the genetic value that Willa could bring to her species," said Ryan Phelan, the executive director of conservation organization Revive & Restore. "But it was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the successful birth of Elizabeth Ann." Revive & Restore has been heavily involved in the project as it aims to restore many endangered populations of animals back into the wild. "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." Phelan concluded.
Elizabeth Ann will not be released into the wild, however, as specialists will continue to study her at an FWS facility in Colorado. The team of researchers is looking to clone more black-footed ferret clones in the coming months as part of their project. Only 120 ferrets were vaccinated last year at an alarming display of their minuscule population. The future, however, looks very bright for the species thanks to modern-day science.