Critically Endangered Black-Footed Ferret Kits Born Using Frozen Sperm

First Posted: Aug 15, 2015 07:26 AM EDT

When it comes to saving endangered species, researchers are looking at the problem from every angle. Now, they've resurrected a black-footed ferret, a critically endangered species, using frozen semen from a ferret that had been dead for about 20 years.

The work to help black-footed ferrets include efforts from the Lincoln Park Zoo, The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louisville Zoological Garden, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Phoenix Zoo and Toronto Zoo.

"Our study is the first to provide empirical evidence that artificial insemination with long-stored spermatozoa is not only possible but also beneficial to the genetic diversity of an endangered species," said David Wildt, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "What we've done here with the black-footed ferret is an excellent example of how sperm preservation can benefit species recovery programs."

The entire survival of the species depends on successful captive management to ensure healthy genetics. In this latest effort, eight black-footed kits were produced with the frozen sperm. This significantly increases the genetic diversity in the population.

Initially, the scientists used fresh semen to artificially inseminate females who failed to mate naturally with males. But with just a few founders to rebuild an entire species, researchers knew that the genetic diversity of the population would be lost. That's why the scientists turned to frozen sperm in order to help increase diversity.

"Our findings show how important it is to bank sperm and other biomaterials from rare and endangered animal species over time," said Paul Marinari, senior curator at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "These 'snapshots' of biodiversity could be invaluable to future animal conservation efforts, which is why we must make every effort to collect, store and study these materials now."

The findings are published in the journal Animal Conservation.

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