A Cloned Ferret Named Elizabeth Ann Could Help Save Her Species
She’s the first endangered North American species to be cloned
Reengineering Life is a column from Future Human about the ways humans are using biology to reprogram our bodies and the world around us.
A black-footed ferret named Willa died more than 30 years ago, but now her DNA lives on through her clone, Elizabeth Ann. Black-footed ferrets are one of the most endangered species in the United States, and Elizabeth Ann may be key to saving her species from extinction.
Created from a few of Willa’s frozen cells, Elizabeth Ann was born on December 10, 2020. She represents the first successful attempt by scientists to clone an endangered North American species, according to a February 18 announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Elizabeth Ann’s birth is a step forward for using cloning for conservation purposes, but the technique may not be useful for every endangered species.
Black-footed ferrets were once found across huge swaths of North America’s Great Plains, from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico. But today, only about 350 or so of the animals exist in Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona because of a substantial decline in prairie dogs, their main food source. Over the past century, populations of prairie dogs have plummeted due to habitat loss, hunting, and disease.
Until 1981, the prairie dog hunters — as the ferrets are also called — were believed to be extinct. Then a sheep dog named Shep discovered some on a ranch in northwestern Wyoming. State officials caught the ferrets and began a breeding program to recover the species.
Today, all black-footed ferrets are descended from just seven individuals. Such a small gene pool makes them more prone to genetic diseases, abnormalities, and smaller litter sizes. Cloning long-dead animals that are genetically different enough could help boost genetic diversity and disease resilience by introducing “new” DNA into the black-footed ferret population. Willa has no living descendants, so her DNA isn’t part of the current gene pool.