Some adorable newborn kittens at Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species have no idea just how special they are. Two African Black-Footed kittens, members of an endangered species rarely seen in captivity, are the first of their kind to be born from a frozen embryo via in-vitro fertilization. This ground-breaking birth is the latest advance in assisted reproduction for endangered species from Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans.
The youngsters, both males, were born to surrogate mother Bijou on February 13, 2011, but their story goes all the way back to 2003, when sperm was collected from a 6 year old male named Ramses in Omaha, Nebraska. Experts at the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo Center for Conservation and Research – Reproductive Sciences Department froze the sperm and sent it to Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. It was combined with an egg from Zora, a Black-Footed Cat living at Audubon research center, creating embryos in March, 2005. Those embryos were frozen for almost six years before being thawed and transferred to Bijou on December 7, 2010. Sixty-nine days later, the two kittens became the first of their species to be born as a result of in-vitro fertilization utilizing frozen/thawed sperm and a frozen/thawed embryo.
“The science of assisted reproduction for endangered species has come a long way in the past fifteen years, but every time we can point to another ‘first’ in the field it gives us hope,” said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman. “We are proving this science works and that we can provide hi-tech options for many different species as the situation grows more and more critical for wildlife across the globe.”
As species like the black-footed cat decrease in numbers, it becomes more important to work out the science for keeping their genetics viable, according to Audubon Nature Institute Senior Vice President for Research Dr. Betsy Dresser, Director of Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. “We don’t know what the future holds for many of these species,” said Dr. Dresser. “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."
The Audubon research program has pioneered a number of firsts in the field, including the birth of African wildcat Jazz, the first wild carnivore born via inter-species embryo transfer and in-vitro fertilization in 1999, and the world’s first cloned sand cat kittens and caracal kitten. While the program focuses heavily on small endangered cats, Audubon research center also pioneered a successful assisted reproduction program for endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes which serves as the prototype for a new program for endangered whooping cranes.
The very special black-footed cats might look similar to domestic kittens found anywhere across the globe, but their numbers, according to the Feline Conservation Federation, are very low. There are only 19 such cats in zoo collections in the United States, and only 40 around the world. Native to South Africa, the black-footed cat is one of the smallest wild felines. While hunting them is prohibited, farmers in their range will sometimes poison or trap them.
There is always more research to be done. “The next step for us will be to clone the black-footed cat and transfer the embryo to a domestic cat surrogate,” said Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species Senior Scientist Dr. C. Earle Pope, who is the lead scientist on the project. Meanwhile, the two black-footed kittens are being cared for by their surrogate mother and staff at Audubon research center, blissfully unaware of their enormous contribution to the science of saving species.