Black-footed ferrets


Shaoshao Tang, Author

Hello! To the fourth article of this mini-series-welcome. In this mini-series of articles, we will be writing about endangered animals to bring more awareness to their cause. This week’s featured animal is the Black-footed Ferret. This article will cover some essential background on the animal, facts on endangerment, threats to the species, and most interestingly, the recent cloning of black-footed ferrets. 


The Black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), also known as the American polecat or prairie dog hunter, are native to central North America’s Northern Great Plains’ grasslands. The species weighs approximately 1.5-2.5 pounds and grows to a length of 18-24 inches. Up to 91% of the black-footed ferret’s diet is composed of prairie dogs, while the remaining 10% is made up of small rodents and Lagomorphs. It is due to the little variation and diversity of their diet that has made survival and population growth for black-footed ferrets riddled with obstacles like disease and a decrease in the prairie dog population. The average lifespan for a black-footed ferret is about a year in the wild but can be up to 5 years. 


The Black-footed Ferret was once thought to be extinct due to the species’ rapid decline in the 20th century until Lucille Hogg’s dog brought a dead Black-footed Ferret to her door. The remnant population of two dozen Black-footed Ferrets lasted until they were marked as “Extinct in the Wild” in 1996 by IUCN. However, a captive-breeding program launched by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in its reintroduction into eight western US states, Canada, and Mexico, from 1991 to 2009. The Black-footed Ferret has been reintroduced into the wild and downgraded to “Endangered” (IUCN Red List, 2008) and the current population is approximately 370 in the wild. 


Human commotion and interference have caused a lot of harm to the ferrets. Because of the species dependence on prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets are incredibly vulnerable to prairie dog habitat loss, which is caused by agriculture, livestock use, and other development. Oil and natural gas exploration and extraction which leads to seismic activity cause prairie dog burrows to collapse, and as mentioned before, the survival of prairie dogs and of black-footed ferrets are closely interconnected. Other problems caused by humans to the species include human-introduced diseases, to which the ferrets are vulnerable because of inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity. 


The importance of the black-footed ferret goes beyond the mere survival and preservation of a species, rather, it impacts an entire ecosystem as without the black-footed ferret there would be a key disruption in the food chain. Although the black-footed ferret population faces many obstacles and dangers, there is hope for the species and its ecosystem in the first ever cloning of a black-footed ferret, which was also the first ever cloned animal in the continent of North America. Elizabeth Ann, first ever cloned black-footed ferret, was born on December 10th 2020 from the cells of a long-dead black-footed ferret named Willa. Elizabeth Ann is created by using preserved DNA from the frozen zoo which stores cryopreserved samples of animal tissue. On Elizabeth Ann’s 65th day of life, she was confirmed to be a black-foot ferret. The creation of Elizabeth Ann gives hope of genetic diversity in the black-footed ferret population with the introduction of more clones like her.

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