Can Frozen Sperm Save Black-Footed Ferrets from Extinction?

Black-footed ferrets are making a comeback. Once thought to be globally extinct, efforts have been made for years to revive this North American native, different from pet-ferrets, mainly of European origin.The small carnivore, similar in length to a domestic cat, spends most of its life underground with prairie dogs being its sole prey.

Recently the frozen sperm of a ferret that died 20 years ago has been used to save this critically endangered species from extinction and thus increasing the genetic diversity of the breeding program.

Scientists from the Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago), The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisville Zoological Garden, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Phoenix Zoo and Toronto Zoo are involved in the current breeding program consisting of about 300 animals.  Their study has published been recently in the journal, Animal Conservation.

The team used frozen sperm of ‘Scarface’, one of the last 18 black-footed ferrets to exist in the 1980s. Eight kits, including offspring of Scarface, are born recently with use of frozen sperm.

The researchers have developed an artificial insemination technique in which the male’s thawed sperm cells are injected directly into the female’s uterus. Pregnant females were closely monitored by taking weight measurements and remote monitoring of the nest boxes via closed-circuit cameras.

They claim that this study is the first to provide empirical evidence that artificial insemination with long stored spermatozoa is not at all impossible with added advantage of genetic diversity of an endangered species. The study shows the importance of banking of sperm and other biomaterials from rare and endangered animal species.

Experts think that the entire species survival depends on successful captive management to ensure healthy genetics over the next 100 years and to produce individuals for the reintroduction program.

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Arunima Maiti

Arunima Maiti

Biomedical scientist with special interest in reproductive biology.

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