Scientists clone the first U.S. Endangered Species:
A black-footed ferret was duplicated from the genes of an animal that died more than 30 years ago.
By The Associated Press
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Scientists have cloned the first U.S. endangered species, a black-footed ferret duplicated from the genes of an animal that died over 30 years ago.
The slinky predator named Elizabeth Ann, born Dec. 10 and announced Thursday, is cute as a button. But watch out — unlike the domestic ferret foster mom who carried her into the world, she’s wild at heart.
“You might have been handling a black-footed ferret kit and then they try to take your finger off the next day,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret recovery coordinator Pete Gober said Thursday. “She’s holding her own.”
Elizabeth Ann was born and is being raised at a Fish and Wildlife Service black-footed ferret breeding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. She’s a genetic copy of a ferret named Willa who died in 1988 and whose remains were frozen in the early days of DNA technology.
Cloning 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 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. Charismatic and nocturnal, they feed exclusively on prairie dogs while living in the midst of the rodents’ sometimes vast burrow colonies.
Even before cloning, black-footed ferrets were a conservation success story. They were thought extinct — victims of habitat loss as ranchers shot and poisoned off prairie dog colonies that made rangelands less suitable for cattle — until a ranch dog named Shep brought a dead one 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 the western U.S., Canada and Mexico since the 1990s.
Lack of genetic diversity presents an ongoing risk. All ferrets reintroduced so far are the descendants of just seven closely related animals — genetic similarity that makes today’s ferrets potentially susceptible to intestinal parasites and diseases such as sylvatic plague.
Willa could have passed along her genes the usual way, too, but a male born to her named Cody “didn’t do his job” and her lineage died out, said Gober.
When Willa 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 modify those genes to help cloned animals survive.
“With these cloning techniques, you can basically freeze time and regenerate those cells,” Gober said. “We’re far from it now as far as tinkering with the genome to confer any genetic resistance, but that’s a possibility in the future.”
Cloning makes a new plant or animal by copying the genes of an existing animal. Texas-based Viagen, a company that clones pet cats for $35,000 and dogs for $50,000, cloned a Przewalski’s horse, a wild horse species from Mongolia born last summer.
Similar to the black-footed ferret, the 2,000 or so surviving Przewalski’s horses are descendants of just a dozen animals.
Viagen also cloned Willa through coordination by Revive & Restore, a wildlife conservation organization focused on biotechnology. Besides cloning, the nonprofit in Sausalito, California, promotes genetic research into imperiled life forms ranging from sea stars to jaguars.
“How can we actually apply some of those advances in science for conservation? Because conservation needs more tools in the toolbox. That’s our whole motivation. Cloning is just one of the tools,” said Revive & Restore co-founder and executive director Ryan Phelan.
Elizabeth Ann was born to a tame domestic ferret, which avoided putting a rare black-footed ferret at risk. Two unrelated domestic ferrets also were born by cesarian section; a second clone didn’t survive.
Elizabeth Ann and future clones of Willa will form a new line of black-footed ferrets that will remain in Fort Collins for study. There currently are no plans to release them into the wild, said Gober.
Novak, the lead scientist at Revive & Restore, calls himself the group’s “passenger pigeon guy” for his work to someday bring back the once common bird that has been extinct for over a century. Cloning birds is considered far more challenging than mammals because of their eggs, yet the group’s projects even include trying to bring back a woolly mammoth, a creature extinct for thousands of years.
The seven-year effort to clone a black-footed ferret was far less theoretical, he said, and shows how biotechnology can help conservation now. In December, Novak loaded up a camper and drove to Fort Collins with his family to see the results firsthand.
“I absolutely had to see our beautiful clone in person,” Novak said. “There’s just nothing more incredible than that.”
Need to know:
Lion Bones are used as a replacement for Tiger bones in Asian Tiger Bone Wine, a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). There is a controversial Legal Bone Export Quota in place in South Africa, which is supposed to be strictly controlled. Lion Bones are also used as Muthi in African Traditional Medicines.
In an Intelligence-driven operation carried out by Law Enforcement Agencies and Environmental Protection Units last week, shocking quantities of Lion Bones were discovered in a house situated in the Wentworth Park Suburb of Krugersdorp, on the West Rand in Gauteng.
The skeletons and bones of at least 27 lions were found at the premises. Thus far, one person – the owner of the property - has been arrested, with more arrests expected soon.
This successful bust was made possible with cooperation between GDARD (Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development) , The HAWKS’ Serious and Organized Crimes Unit, and the Metro K9 (Dog) Unit. Ndhivhuwo Mulamu, spokesperson for the operation, said that the man is expected to appear in court soon.
What people seem to forget is that at least 27 Lions lost their lives to result in this many bones to be found in one location. The problem with having any kind of legal export quota for lion bones means that it is impossible to control the trade, and smuggling is rife. Poached lions skeletons are mixed in with ‘legal’ consignments, the same way as ivory and rhino horn.
We seemed to have learnt not a single lesson from the CoVid Crisis. There is no place for this kind of barbaric practice in a so-called civilized world.
Study highlights ‘terrible’ signs of Species' decline from Wildlife Trade:
A new study found that the wildlife trade has led to a near 62% decrease in species abundance, raising concerns about its impact on terrestrial biodiversity.
The authors found there to be a paucity of literature on the subject, and were only able to identify 31 studies that compared species abundance in exploited habitats with species abundance in unexploited areas.
The paper calls for increased protections for species and better management of protected areas.
Pangolins, orchids and chameleons — these are just a few species that are regularly traded in local and international wildlife markets, contributing to a global industry worth billions of dollars each year. But what is the wildlife trade’s impact on terrestrial biodiversity? A new study probes this very question.
The study, published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, found that, overall, illegal and legal wildlife trade contributed to a 61.6% decrease in species abundance. Endangered species suffered an even sharper decline of 81% due to trade.
“Thousands of species are traded for pets, traditional medicines, and luxury foods, but how this impacts species’ abundances in the wild was unknown,” co-author David Edwards, professor of conservation science at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., said in a statement. “Our research draws together high-quality field studies to reveal a shocking reduction in most traded species, driving many locally extinct.”
Most studies on the wildlife trade tend to focus on market trends, rather than species abundance within their habitats, lead author Oscar Morton, a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, told Mongabay. But for the context of this study, the researchers chose to only look at studies that “compared the abundance of species in habitats under extractive pressure and those not under extractive pressure,” he said.
“They typically involved researchers at the sites setting up transects and counting the number of individuals in each site and then processing this to estimate the species abundance at each site,” Morton said.
Most of these 31 studies focused on the South American and African tropics, while four looked at Asia, and one at North America. No studies were identified from Europe. The researchers also found that most studies looked at mammals, but tended to ignore other taxonomic groups such as amphibians, lepidopterans, arachnids, orchids and cacti, which include some of the most widely traded species.
“One of the main findings was our lack of findings,” Morton said. “That’s got to be one of the first things that people take from this.”
The authors found that international trade had a far greater impact on species abundance than local trade did. As a general rule, the further a species traveled through trade, the greater its decline, the paper suggests.
“This is particularly worrying given plans to synergize the traditional Chinese medicine trade into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, creating trade links with 62% of the world population,” the authors write. “This expansion is recognized as a key threat to biodiversity, increasing both access to and potential demand for medicinally prized species, including brown bear (Ursus arctos) and snow leopard (Panthera uncia).”
The paper also found that species living in protected areas fared only slightly better than species in non-protected areas, with trade driving declines of 56% and 70.9% respectively.
“A protected area was better than no protected area,” Morton said. “But we still found declines.”
The authors ultimately call for better protective measures for species and better management of protected areas.
“This is an alarm bell telling us two things — that this is an area that needs more work [and] we have massive knowledge gaps,” Morton said. “And the second thing … is that these initial signs are pretty terrible. We’ve not really found anything good from this.”
About 100 million plants and animals are trafficked internationally each year, contributing to a global industry worth an estimated $4 billion to $20 billion each year, according to the paper.
South China’s plant markets sell wild-sourced slipper orchids like Paphiopedilum hirsutissimum.
The authors say they are aware of two potential biases that could have influenced their findings. The first is that wildlife in exploited areas might display more cryptic behavior, making it tough for scientists to measure their abundance. The second is that some of their cited studies may have inherent biases themselves that were hard to detect.
Steve Broad, executive director at TRAFFIC, an NGO that monitors the global wildlife trade, says the nature of the paper, which he describes as a “meta-analysis of a big sample of other research findings,” makes it difficult to assess the strength of its findings.
“The authors acknowledge various types of bias that might provide alternative explanation[s] for their findings or moderate the contrast they observe between traded and non-traded populations of the same species,” Broad told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “Without a deep dive into some of the studies they are drawing upon, it’s very hard to see whether their logic stands up. Might there be reasons why causes of decline of species abundance other than harvest for trade are more prevalent in the ‘treatment’ sites than the ‘control’ sites they identify?”
Nevertheless, Broad says the paper provides an “interesting and important attempt to look at impacts of species exploitation on abundance.”
“[I]t will be interesting to dig deeper to see how meaningful the findings are and what additional contributory factors might be identified,” he said.
Written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts, 19 February 2021