For the first time ever, two unrelated clones of a wild species have bred naturally to produce healthy babies. Unrelated endangered African wildcat clones have given birth to a total of eight babies. These births advance the science of high-tech reproduction for endangered species by confirming that clones of wild animals can breed naturally, making critically important contributions to shrinking gene pools of animals on the brink of extinction.
"At Audubon Nature Institute, our mission is celebrating the wonders of nature," said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman. "The science which produced these beautiful kittens is nothing short of wondrous. We are thrilled to play a part in a scientific journey holding such enormous potential for the world's animals."
Two litters of kittens produced by natural breeding of cloned African wildcats have been born at Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. The first five kittens were born on July 26, 2005 to the African wildcat Madge, who is a clone of the wildcat Nancy. The second litter, consisting of three kittens, was born on August 2 to the African wildcat Caty, also a clone of the wildcat Nancy. The father of both litters is Ditteaux, a clone of the African wildcat Jazz. Jazz made headlines when he was born as the result of transfer of cryopreserved ("frozen") embryos to a domestic cat.
"We couldn't be happier with these births," said Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species Director Dr. Betsy Dresser. "By improving the cloning process and then encouraging cloned animals to breed and make babies, we can revive the genes of individuals who might not be reproductively viable otherwise, and we can save genes from animals in the wild."
For example, Dr. Dresser explained, skin samples of a long-dead but genetically valuable animal, if properly preserved in the frozen zoo, can be cloned to create a genetic match of the animal. Those genes can then be introduced back into the population through natural breeding, keeping the species viable and increasing their numbers.
"The goal is to use whatever tools we can to help boost these populations," said Dr. Dresser, who also serves as Research Professor of Biology and the Virginia Kock/Audubon Institute Endowed Chair in Species Survival and Conservation at the University of New Orleans. "While no single approach is going to solve the incredibly complex problem of disappearing wildlife, cloning is critically important in the race against extinction."
The endangered species cloning project at Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species is led by Dr. C. Earle Pope and Dr. Martha Gomez, with Dr. Alex Cole serving as veterinary scientist. Drs. Pope and Gomez collaborated to produce Ditteaux, the first cloned African wildcat born on August 6, 2003. Since then, Drs. Pope and Gomez, along with the team of scientists at Audubon's research center, have produced three additional litters for a total of seven African wildcat clones.
Other research projects at the center include assisted reproduction for a variety of endangered small cats such as fishing cats and rusty spotted cats. Work is being done with endangered bongo antelope and clouded leopards, as well as with a variety of birds such as African saddlebill storks, milky storks and Jabiru storks. Audubon's highly successful program with Mississippi sandhill cranes, where birds are artificially inseminated, hatched out and hand-reared before release into the wild, has led to a similar chick program with endangered whooping cranes at the center. Audubon collaborates with Louisiana State University, University of New Orleans, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many other institutions and organizations in carrying out these projects.
In an effort to familiarize the public with the benefits of cloning for endangered species, the new kittens will be on exhibit at Audubon Zoo later on this year. Interpretive presentations will explain the significance of the cuddly newcomers. Once the youngsters grow up and start displaying their mature wildcat characteristics, they will be returned to the research center group for more study.
Audubon Nature Institute is a New Orleans-based not-for-profit which operates ten facilities: Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, Freeport McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Audubon Zoo, Audubon Park, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Wilderness Park, Audubon Louisiana Nature Center and the soon-to-open Audubon Insectarium.
For more information on Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, log onto Audubon's website at www.auduboninstitute.org.