An adorable newborn kitten at Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species represents an innovation in reproductive technology pioneered in New Orleans at Audubon Nature Institute. An African Black-footed Cat kitten was born February 6, 2012, to an ordinary domestic cat, becoming the first of its kind to be born from inter-species embryo transfer.
This birth is the latest breakthrough in assisted reproduction for endangered species from Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans.
Story Begins Years Ago
The story of the newborn kitten goes all the way back to 2003, when sperm was collected from a 6 year old male named Ramses by scientists at the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo Center for Conservation and Research, in Omaha, Nebraska. The sample was shipped overnight to Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans where it was frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen. In March, 2005, the sperm was thawed and combined with eggs from Zora, a black-footed cat living at the Audubon research center.
The kitten is the first of its species to be born to a different species surrogate mother via frozen/thawed embryo transfer using cryopreserved sperm.
“Just as technology races ahead in every other field today, the science of assisted reproduction for endangered species has come a long way since we opened Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in 1996. And now, another ‘first’ in the field renews our hope for the future,” said Audubon Nature Institute President and CEO Ron Forman. “We are proving this science works. We can provide high-tech options for many different species as the situation grows more and more critical for wildlife across the globe.”
Options for the Future
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 Center for Research of Endangered Species acting director Dr. Earle Pope. “We can preserve DNA and work out protocols for creating pregnancies and producing babies through cryo-preservation and embryo transfer, giving these species a shot at survival even when their numbers dip to dangerously low levels. “
Just last year, scientists at the Audubon research center announced the first black-footed kittens born after embryo transfer of cryopreserved embryos produced by IVF with cryopreserved sperm to a same-species surrogate black-footed cat female. The two black-footed cat kittens born last year were the first result of thawing and transferring some of the embryos originally frozen in March, 2005. That makes the female kitten born five weeks ago a ‘littermate’ to the two kittens born in 2011.
This newest advance, proving that black-footed cat embryos can be transferred successfully to a much more common domestic cat, gives endangered species experts another range of options by increasing the number of potentially available exotic cat embryo surrogate mothers.This is the first time this inter-species embryo transfer procedure has been successful with the black-footed cat, a species that is classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN and is listed as CITES Appendix I.
The Audubon research program has pioneered a number of firsts in the field, including:
· the birth of African wildcat, Jazz, the first wild carnivore ever born via in vitro fertilization and inter-species transfer of cryopreserved embryos in 1999
· the world’s first cloned African wildcat, sand cat and caracal kittens.
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.
No Ordinary Cats
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 53 such cats in 16 accredited zoo collections in the United States Native to South Africa, the black-footed cat is one of the smallest wild felines. They are perhaps the rarest of the African cats and their status is threatened by habitat deterioration and poisoning from ingestion of bait intended for other species of cats.
There is always more research to be done. “The next step for us will be to clone the black-footed cat to ensure we will always have enough genetic material to bolster the species,” said Dr. Martha Gomez, an internationally recognized expect on cloning in cats and a co-investigator on the current project. Meanwhile, the black-footed kitten is cared for by its surrogate mother and staff at Audubon research center. The domestic cat has done an excellent job of taking care of the kitten. At one month of age its weight has increased to 223 grams.