Scientists have just cloned two endangered ferrets using frozen cells from 1988

Noreen and Antonia, two newly born black-footed ferrets, are wonderful creatures. Scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) used genetic material collected from a female ferret 45 years ago and cloned her. This is more than just an experiment: researchers hope the cloned animals will play an important role in reviving their endangered species.

Noreen the black-footed ferret
Noreen. Image credits: Kika Tuff/Revive & Restore

Currently there are only 370 living black-footed ferrets and they are all descended from the same seven ferrets bred during a recovery program in the 1980s. This means that their population has low genetic diversity, adding even more problems to an already troubled species.

“Without the right amount of genetic diversity, a species often becomes more susceptible to disease and genetic abnormalities, as well as having limited adaptability to conditions in the wild and a reduced fertility rate. Limited genetic diversity makes it extremely difficult to fully recover a species,” writes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

But cloning could change the situation.

USFWS researchers claim that genes from Noreen and Antonia could introduce some genetic diversity and save the species from extinction.

What’s so special about cloned ferrets?

In the 19th century there were almost a million black-footed ferrets. They mainly ate prairie dogs, small burrowing rodents native to North America. However, an increase in agricultural activities in the 1900s led to the elimination of prairie dogs in large numbers as they destroyed crops.

This further caused a sharp decline in the black-footed ferret population. Their population did not recover and by 1979 they were almost completely extinct, leading many experts to believe the species was extinct.

Surprisingly, two years later a rancher discovered a small group of black-footed ferrets in Wyoming. This rediscovery encouraged conservationists to launch a breeding program to increase the population of these animals.

Seven ferrets successfully reproduced during the program, leading to the birth of more and more ferrets over time. But of course genetic diversity was limited. However, Willa, the female ferret whose tissue samples were used to clone Noreen and Antonia, was not among those seven. Until now, there were no existing black-footed ferrets that had her genes.

“These samples contain three times more unique genetic variations than are found on average in the current population. The introduction of this new, currently unrepresented genetic material could provide a significant boost to the genetics of the current black-footed ferret population.” USFWS stated.

There are not two but three cloned ferrets

To create Noreen and Antonia, researchers first took ova (ova) from a domesticated ferret and removed their genetic material. They then replaced the contents of the eggs with Willa’s.

Antonia the black-footed ferretAntonia the black-footed ferret
Anthony. Image credits: Roshan Patel/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

These eggs are then exposed to an activation stimulus (can be an electric shock or a chemical treatment), which leads to the formation of embryos. The embryos were then transferred to a domesticated ferret, which eventually gave birth to the cloned animals.

However, Noreen and Antonia are not the only cloned ferrets. In February 2021, USFWS announced the birth of Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret, also created from Willa’s frozen cells.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth is unable to produce offspring due to hydrometra, a medical condition caused by the buildup of fluid in the uterus. The condition negatively affects the fertility and reproductive health of the animal.

According to the researchers, hydrometra is also observed in naturally born ferrets and is not a result of the cloning process.

Elizabeth currently resides at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado, where Noreen also lives. Antonia, on the other hand, lives in Virginia at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

Cloning is not a substitute for conservation

Noreen and Antonia will reach reproductive maturity within a year, and then they will be ready to pass on their new genes to the next generation of black-footed ferrets. Will this experiment be successful in increasing the population of their species? Time will tell.

An important point to note, however, is that cloning should not be seen as a replacement for traditional conservation strategies. Instead, we should think of it as one of many tools that can be used in species recovery, among other available options.

“Some people think that if you have (species) in the freezer, you don’t need them in the wild. That’s simply not true. “We can’t lose what we have in the wild. But if we do, it’s good to have an insurance policy,” Seth Willey, deputy assistant regional director at USFWS, told me. Scientific American.

Essentially, just because we can clone ferrets doesn’t mean we don’t have to save them. Cloning can introduce new genes and help revive animals, but it does not solve the problems a species faces in its natural habitat.

This is why conservation programs that focus on habitat protection, management, breeding and recovery of wildlife will always be important and relevant.

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