Cloning — or creating exact copies of living things from information found in their cells — eventually could bring back extinct species such as the passenger pigeon. For now, the technique holds promise for helping endangered species including a Mongolian wild horse that was cloned and last summer was born at a Texas facility.
“Biotechnology and genomic data can really make a difference on the ground with conservation efforts,” said Ben Novak, lead scientist with Revive & Restore, a biotechnology-focused conservation nonprofit that coordinated the ferret and horse clonings.
Black-footed ferrets are a type of weasel easily recognized by dark eye markings resembling a robber’s mask. They eat prairie dogs.
Black-footed ferrets were thought extinct — victims of habitat loss as ranchers shot and poisoned prairie dog colonies that made land less suitable for cattle — until a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead one to its home in Wyoming in 1981.
Scientists gathered the remaining population for a captive-breeding program that has released thousands of ferrets at dozens of sites in North America since the 1990s.
But the success could be temporary. Those black-footed ferrets are closely related to one another and could be wiped out by a parasite or disease.
Willa wasn’t closely related to the bred ferrets. When she died, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department sent her tissues to a “frozen zoo” run by San Diego Zoo Global that maintains cells from more than 1,100 species and subspecies worldwide. Eventually scientists may be able to change those genes to help cloned animals survive. Elizabeth Ann and future Willa clones will form a new line of black-footed ferrets that will remain at Fort Collins.