Cloning makes three: Two more endangered ferrets are gene copies of critter frozen in 1980s

This photo shows a cloned black-footed ferret named Noreen on Feb. 19 at the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Carr, Colo. (Kika Tuff/Revive & Restore via AP)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Two more black-footed ferrets have been cloned from the genes used for the first clone of an endangered species in the U.S., bringing to three the number of slinky predators genetically identical to one of the last such animals found in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.

Efforts to breed the first clone, a female named Elizabeth Ann born in 2021, have failed, but the recent births of two more cloned females, named Noreen and Antonia, in combination with a captive breeding program launched in the 1980s, is boosting hopes of diversifying the endangered species. Genetic diversity can improve a species’ ability to adapt and survive despite disease outbreaks and changing environmental conditions.

Energetic and curious, black-footed ferrets are a nocturnal type of weasel with dark eye markings resembling a robber’s mask. Their prey is prairie dogs, and the ferrets hunt the rodents in often vast burrow colonies on the plains.

Black-footed ferrets are now a conservation success story — after being all but wiped out in the wild, thousands of them have been bred in captivity and reintroduced at dozens of sites in the western U.S., Canada and Mexico since the 1990s.

Because they feed exclusively on prairie dogs, they have been victims of farmer and rancher efforts to poison and shoot the land-churning rodents — so much so that they were thought to be extinct, until a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead one home in western Wyoming in 1981. Conservationists then managed to capture seven more, and establish a breeding program.

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