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This precious cloned ferret is here to save her species9 min read

March 5, 2021 6 min read

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This precious cloned ferret is here to save her species9 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Elizabeth Ann at 37 days old at the end of January. Image: Revive and Restore

Meet Elizabeth Ann, the black-footed ferret born in a lab with just a little DNA. Genetically, she is a clone. She is identical to another ferret Willa, who lived in the 1980s. So why is this stranger than fiction, Frankenstein like adorable fur-ball alive today? Let’s find out.

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: The first-ever animal to be cloned was Dolly The Sheep. She was cloned in 1997.

sheep dolly GIF by gifnews
Dolly was cloned further and more sheep were produced. Image: GIPHY

Black-Footed Ferrets

Daily Discovery: The Road to Recovery - The Black-Footed Ferret - Fort  Collins Museum of Discovery
A back footed ferret in the wild. Image: Fort Collins Museum

Elizabeth Ann is a black-footed ferret, a species native to North America. In the early 1900s, black-footed ferrets were all over western America. They would spend their time burrowing holes and catching their favourite prey: Prarie dogs. However, when Prarie dogs nearly got wiped out of the face of the planet, these ferrets were the unseen victims.

Prairie dogs aggravate ranchers across La Plata County
Prarie Dogs were the primary prey of black-footed Ferrets, as they caught diseases and become weak and space so did the ferrets that preyed on them. Image: The Journal

Prarie dogs were poisoned by humans, lost their habitat to us, and got eradicated by a deadly plague. In turn, the ferrets lost their food. Ferret populations began to decline rapidly. At one point, people believed that these furry creatures had gone completely extinct!

The miraculous resurrection

That was, of course, until a near miracle occurred in 1981. A pet dog returned home to his owner’s ranch in Wyoming and dropped a freshly killed black ferret on the porch. Unaware of the marvel that she had just witnessed, the rancher’s wife took the ferret to the local taxidermist. She wanted to decorate her home with the stuffed body of the ferret.

The taxidermist was amazed. Was he really looking at the fresh corpse of a creature that has been thought to be extinct for ages! After some investigation, it turned out that the taxidermist was, in fact, correct. The black-footed ferret was not extinct, just on the brink of it.

The Return Of The Black-Footed Ferret
The black footed ferret hunts a prairie dog. Image: Science Daily

The newly discovered population flourished in the wild for a few years, but soon it was struck with disease. The population was devastated by diseases such as canine distemper and the sylvatic plague.

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: The sylvatic plague is caused by the same bacterium that caused the devastating bubonic plague and subsequent black death in humans. The black death was the most deadly pandemic recorded in human history. It caused the death of about 200 million people!

plague doctor GIF
Health Workers wore these creepy masks to prevent themselves from getting infected with the plague. Image: GIPHY

The surviving 18

Ony 18 black-footed ferrets survived. Scientists immediately took them in. In captivity, the ferrets were made to breed so that they would once again become the healthy and large population that once roamed America. The only problem was that only 7 of the ferrets mated and reproduced.

3. What is Biodiversity?
Diversity at every level is crucial to a healthy ecosystem and in this way the health of each species is linked to the other. Image: Open Book Publishers

As a result of inbreeding, we now have about 700 ferrets. They all belong to the same family. In fact, every single ferret alive today, other than Elizabeth ann, is a half-sibling of the other. They are all slowly being re-introduced in the wild but their extreme genetic similarity poses a high risk of a second and true extinction.

A Ferret Comeback
This is a map of North America. Take a look at the territorial shifts of the black-footed ferrets in America. Image: Junior Scholastic

More genetic biodiversity is essential for healthy populations. This population would be all the more vulnerable to disease as they all share similar DNA. If one ferret is at risk, so are the rest of them. Think of it the way you would imagine co-morbidities with Covid19. If one of the ferrets had diabetes and became extra-vulnerable to severe Covid19, so would the rest of the population. This is because they would all have the same genes that made them prone to diabetes. That way, the chances of all the ferrets becoming very sick become high. However, if they were genetically diverse, only those ferrets that had the diabetic gene would be at risk. And eventually would be enough diversity to protect their population from extinction.

Where does Elizabeth Ann enter the picture?

Scientists clone a black-footed ferret | Inside Daily Brief - February,  19th 2021
Image: News Insider

Well, it all began in the 1980s. One of the last few remaining wild black-footed ferrets named Willa was roaming the forests of Wyoming. It just so happened, and for no concrete reason, as cloning was not possible at the time, that a forward thinking scientist took her cells and decided to preserve them.

Image: Al Jazeera

They were added to a huge collection in the frozen zoo. That’s right, a whole zoo of frozen tissue, blood and cells! The tissues of thousands of animals have been stored for decades in the Frozen Zoo at -320 degrees Fahrenheit.

When Willa’s cells were sampled and stored, the researchers behind it didn’t even know why. It was just an instinct that perhaps, someday, these animal tissues could come of some use. Who would have thought that Willa’s cells could one day save an entire species?

So how did we get from frozen cells to Elizabeth Ann?

Ben Novak, the lead scientist of the biotechnology nonprofit Revive & Restore, with Elizabeth Ann at age three weeks.
Ben Novak, the lead scientist at the biotechnology company, Revive and Restore that spearheaded the birth of Elizabeth Ann. Image: Revive and Restore

Elizabeth Ann was conjured as a plan to restore the biodiversity and health of the black-footed ferret. Willa’s cells were removed from the deep freeze after almost 40 years and were prepared for cloning. A biotechnology company called revive and restore knew exactly what to do.. Through a technique that involved using Willa’s DNA and a process called adult cell cloning, Elizabeth Ann was born.

“Pinch me, the cells of this animal banked in 1988 have become an animal.”

Oliver Ryder, the director of conservation genetics at the San Diego frozen Zoo via the New York Times

She has identical DNA to Willa and is genetically unrelated to all the other black half-sibling ferrets that roam North America today. This is because Willa was not one of the founding 7 ferrets that spawned this generation of furry creatures.
Hopefully, Elizabeth and her offspring will be able to bring genetic diversity and good health back to North America’s adorable yet deadly black-footed ferrets.

This GIF of Elizabeth Ann has been taken from a video provided by the US Fish and Wildlife service.

Owliver’s Obscure Observation: Did you know that cloning is not as rare as you would think? People have cloned sheep, cows for meat, horses, and even pets! One couple in the UK spent a whopping 67,000 pounds on cloning their dead dog! They stored the dog’s DNA and sent it to a company in South Korea. The company, in turn, shipped them two adorable “clone puppies”.

A selection of cloned pigs. Image: WIRED magazine

Take a look at this video to understand a little bit about cloning:

All this cloning makes you wonder…

  • Why haven’t we cloned humans yet?
  • Does the idea of cloning humans make you nervous? Why does it feel odd?
  • Do you think having the same DNA ould mean that two clones would make the same decisions and have the same thinking patterns?
  • Are our thoughts and minds influenced by our DNA?|

With Excerpts From: The New York Times, The New York Times, Reuters, The Hindu, Wired, Revive and Restore, Livescience, and Business Insider