The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced the birth of a black-footed ferret named Elizabeth Anne. She is the world’s first cloned black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. She was born to a domestic ferret in order to avoid putting a wild black-footed ferret (of which there are still few in number) at risk.
For those who aren't familiar, the black-footed ferret declined in population throughout the 1900s as their prey - the prairie dog - equally underwent a population decline as farmers and ranchers began poisoning and exterminating the rodents, causing the ferret population to crash. It was thought extinct until a small colony was found in the 1980s. Although a small breeding population persists, the species was considered extinct in the wild by 1996 until a successful reintroduction program has recategorized the species as 'endangered.'
Where does Elizabeth Anne come in, one may ask? As a genetic clone of a member of a wild ferret that died back in 1988, cloning may help diversify the gene pool of endangered species, increasing their resilience to disease. Other than Elizabeth Anne, all black-footed ferrets alive today are descended from that one colony discovered in the '80s - that's a problem.
Still, scientists are hopeful about these developments, even if they are careful. “It will be a slow, methodical process,” Samantha Wisely, a conservation geneticist at the University of Florida, said. “We need to make absolutely sure that we’re not endangering the genetic lineage of black-footed ferrets by introducing this individual.”
For organizations like Revive & Restore, Elizabeth Anne also represents a greater shift towards “de-extinction," whereby future advancements in cloning technology will permit
extinct species to be brought back to life, or, at worst, to reintroduce species that "include traits of extinct animals."
Organizations like Revive & Restore are seeking to transfer the genes that enabled mammoths to inhabit cold temperatures into the DNA of modern elephants, making them more resilient. For the day when mammoths are reintroduced to the Earth, there's even a place for them to stay: Pleistocene Park in northeastern Siberia, founded by a Russian ecologist who’s trying to turn tundra into grasslands.