Ferrets Have a Record-Breaking Breeding Season at the National Zoo

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We can't get enough of this litter of black-footed ferrets that was born last month at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the National Zoo's research facility in Front Royal, Va. But there are many more where that came from. The Zoo reports a whopping high of 50 fuzzy creatures have been bred this year, an all-time banner year for the program.

There were other firsts to report as well—12 litters of ferrets have been produced at SCBI since May 7, and while there tends to be three or four babies (called "kits") in a litter, five of these litters had six kits. There were also four females who gave birth for the first time. Though once thought to be extinct and still listed as endangered today, SCBI's husbandry efforts continue to revitalize the black-footed ferret populations, both at the zoo and in the wild.

Originally, the black-footed ferret ranged across the Great Plains of Canada and the United States. After a sharp population decline in the first part of the 20th century, scientists began to suspect in the 1970s that the black-footed ferret had gone extinct. But in 1981, a colony of ferrets was found to be hanging on in Wyoming, and scientists captured the animals in order to breed them and eventually reintroduce them into the wild in larger numbers.

In 1988, the Zoo became the first to receive offspring from the Wyoming breeding center set up with the last remaining ferrets, and since then about 500 have been born at SCBI. Over 200 of these have been reintroduced into their natural habitat, contributing to the nearly 1,000 black-footed ferrets that exist in the wild today.

At the SCBI, 48 of the newborn ferrets were natural births, but two were successful products of artificial insemination, a laproscopic process by which 145 ferret kits have been conceived and born. SCBI is home to the only Genome Resource Bank that preserves the semen of male black-footed ferrets.

According to Zoo reports, David Wildt, SCBI's director of the Center for Species Survival, sees the success of the ferret breeding operation as "a perfect example of how a marriage of animal husbandry and scientific technology can help in species recovery."

Catch more photos of the new ferrets while you can, because soon they'll be headed back out into the wild. In the fall, all 49 ferrets (one of the 50 died after its birth) will be taken to the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center in Colorado to prepare to be reintroduced back into the wild via one of 19 reintroduction sites across Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Mexico and Canada.

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