NGSS: Core Idea: LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems;

LS3.A: Inheritance of Traits; LS2.B: Cycle of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

This Ferret is a Clone!

Scientists have cloned a black-footed ferret. Can she help her species survive?

Elizabeth Ann looks like any other black-footed ferret. But there’s one big difference: She’s a  clone . Elizabeth Ann is an exact copy of a black-footed ferret named Willa that died about 30 years ago. This is the first time that scientists have cloned an endangered animal native to the United States.

To clone her, scientists took out  genes  from Willa’s frozen skin cells. Then they combined this genetic material with an egg cell taken from a domestic ferret—the type you’d buy at a pet shop. This combined cell is called an  embryo. It was then put inside another domestic ferret. The embryo grew just as it would during a regular pregnancy. A month later, on December 10, 2020, Elizabeth Ann was born!

“She’s spectacular,” says Ben Novak. He’s a scientist at Revive & Restore, a company that worked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on the project. “She’s a living, breathing animal that was born from a skin cell,” he says.

Today, Elizabeth Ann is scurrying through tubes at the National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado. And she may help to save her kind.

USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center (Elizabeth Ann)


In the mid-1800s, more than 5 million black-footed ferrets lived on the Great Plains of North America. In the wild, they mostly hunt prairie dogs, a type of rodent. But farmers in the region viewed prairie dogs as pests. The burrows where the animals live made it difficult to farm. The farmers poisoned the prairie dogs and destroyed their burrows. 

Without a large enough food source, wild ferret numbers also began to fall. Diseases killed prairie dogs and ferrets too. By the 1970s, scientists thought black-footed ferrets had completely died out. 

Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images




But in 1981, a dog belonging to a Wyoming rancher found a black-footed ferret. Conservationists eventually captured more and bred them in captivity. Now there are about 600 black-footed ferrets, says Novak. About half of those have been released into the wild. 

But this new group of ferrets is still at risk. All of them come from only seven ancestors, explains Novak. Closely related animals are more likely to pass on traits that can cause health problems in future generations. 

Because Willa was not one of the seven ancestors, Elizabeth Ann has a different set of genes than the ferrets currently found in the wild. By creating Elizabeth Ann, scientists hope to increase the genetic differences in the wild ferret population. That could give black-footed ferrets a better chance of surviving.


Scientists plan for Elizabeth Ann to have babies soon. With luck, they’ll release her grandchildren or great-grandchildren into the wild so they can breed with wild ferrets. That would add different genes into the population. For now, researchers are making sure Elizabeth Ann stays healthy and well-fed. “She is the most valuable ferret in the world,” says Novak.

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