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The Black-footed Ferret That Could Save the Species

Tanya is the owner of multiple animals, including two ferrets. She has studied animal health and is a dedicated volunteer at a shelter.

The last year was full of challenges and hardships, but also of incredible research in science, including ferrets. The ongoing research on the endangered Black-Footed Ferret had a huge success in the hopes of bringing more diversity to the species and bringing us one step closer to saving them from extinction.

Elizabeth Ann at 48 days old

Elizabeth Ann at 48 days old

The Project

Four institutions created a partnership in order to delve into this project to make it happen. We have to commend these institutions for the time and effort that they are putting into this project.

The project began with Revive & Restore and the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFFRIT) created the Genomics Working Group with a plan to help the Black-footed ferret species.

ViaGen Pets & Equine are located in Texas and is the leading cloning and genetic preservation in the world.

San Diego Zoo Global Alliance (SDZWA) has been a part of many conservation research on six continents for both plants and animals. They established the SDZWA Frozen Zoo in 1975 and have been a large part of the BFF Project.

Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a part of the Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team (BFRIT)and is a leader in captive management and recovery.

The National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center (NBFFCC) has been the primary breeding center for over 30 years, with 60% of the captive population.

“...it was a commitment to seeing this species survive that has led to the

successful birth of Elizabeth Ann. 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.”

— Ryan Phelan, Revive & Restore Executive Director

The Challenges and Willa

One of the biggest challenges in the Black=Footed Ferret conversation has been a lack of biodiversity. All of today's Black-footed ferrets descend from only seven individuals. Without a wider diversity, animals are more prone to disease and genetic abnormalities, which makes it harder for them to recover as a species.

These ferrets were once thought to be extinct until a small group of them were found in 1981 in Wyoming. They were taken and put into a captive breeding program for study and hope to save them.

Willa lived until January 23, 1988, but she was never bred in captivity. Three days after she died, her cells were cryopreserved in hopes that we would be able to use them when we had the technology.


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Elizabeth with her surrogate

Elizabeth with her surrogate

Elizabeth Ann

From the 18 ferrets that were caught, only seven became the founders of today's population. Numbers currents are between 250-350 in captivity and approximately 300 in reintroduction sites in the world. These seven founders have been the reason the numbers have climbed, however, they are all either siblings or cousins.

Elizabeth Ann has the potential to become the eighth founder. Since Willa's genes have diversity, that means that her clone would also carry these and would bring more diversity to a new line of ferrets that could aid in the recovery of the dying species.

The National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center (NBFFCC) in Colorado had her being cared for by a surrogate domestic ferret and their staff. They were transferred to the NBFFCC to give birth there under supervision. Elizabeth Ann and her surrogate mother were kept isolated from other black-footed ferrets and will continue to live at the NBFFCC

There is a potential ninth founder, currently known as Studbook 2 or SB2. Research and evaluation will be done before any of the clones will be brought together for breeding.

This research is still in the early stages, and researchers and Elizabeth Ann's health and developments will be monitored.

What Happens If Elizabeth Breeds

If Elizabeth does successfully breed, those cloned from those offspring will give the species a higher chance of recovery in the wild. One challenge is that Black-Footed Ferrets are susceptible to the Sylvatic plague, which came from Asia, while domesticated ferrets are not affected by this. This has been a huge threat to the species' recovery. Vaccination has been found to be effective, but with help, they may be able to develop a natural immune response to it.

A Fighting Chance

This breakthrough may just be the boost that is needed to help us bring these beautiful creatures back into nature and thrive. We will hopefully see more progress and updates in the new year about how Elizabeth and the project is progressing.

Sources

Revive & Restore (2021), The Black-Footed Ferret Project, URL: https://reviverestore.org/projects/black-footed-ferret/

Flickr Page

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/sets/72157718342229772/

US Fish and Wildlife Service, Innovative Genetic Research Boosts Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Efforts by USFWS and Partners URL: https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/pressrel/2021/02182021-USFWS-and-Partners-Innovative-Genetic-Cloning-Research-Black-footed-Ferret-Conservation.php

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Tanya Huffman

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