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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tiny Endangered Kittens Born From Frozen Embryos

by Stephen Messenger
black footed kitten photo
Photo: Susan Poag via The Times-Picayune
Scientists at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans have made a genetic-breakthrough of the most adorable proportions -- successfully producing two endangered kittens via in vitro fertilization. With sperm taken from a male African black-footed cat in 2003, the team inseminated an egg in 2005. The embryo remained frozen until last December, when it was finally transferred to a surrogate female named Bijou. Less than three months later, the tiny, fluffy duo were born.

In addition to being one of the world's most threatened species of feline, African black-footed cats are also among the smallest. A fully grown adult will typically be just a fraction of the size of a regular house-cat. Less than 50 specimens are known to exist on the planet -- and 19 of those are housed at facilities in the United States. Experts say that they face threats from weary farmers who try to poison them and from human expansion in their native habitat.

This first successful birth from frozen embryos, however, offers hope for conservationists that the diminutive cats will avoid extinction.

"They haven't reproduced well in captivity at all. This is really prevention, for the future, keeping species from going extinct," says Betsy Dresser of the Audubon Nature Institute. "They're so low in number. If we don't do something, we're going to lose them."

black footed kittens photo  
Photo: Susan Poag via The Times-Picayune
A report from The Times-Picayune provides more details on how advances in genetics can help save species like the African black-footed cat:

A goal of the research is to learn how to use much more plentiful domestic cats as surrogate mothers and then spread the technique to other institutions and zoos so the population of the compact, wild cats can be rebuilt and reintroduced in conservation areas, Dresser said.
"We don't know what the future holds for many of these species," said the facility in a news release. "But we do know that by preserving DNA and working on protocol for creating pregnancies and producing babies through cryo-preservation and surrogate mothers, we are giving these species a shot at survival even when their numbers dip to dangerously low levels."