Carnivore keepers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia, are welcoming a litter of endangered black-footed ferret kits. Three-year-old female Potpie has birthed one kit already, which was born at 3:41 p.m. and can be viewed via the Black-Footed Ferret Cam. Animal care staff are closely monitoring the soundless, black-and-white webcam for additional kits. They will leave Potpie to bond with and care for her kits without interference.
Virtual visitors can observe Potpie and her kits in their den through this temporary live platform. Depending on where Potpie chooses to rest in her den, the kits may be more or less visible on the webcam. After about 10 days, animal care staff will perform a neonatal exam and determine the kits’ sexes.
“To witness the birth of a species that was once extinct in the wild is a moment of pride and joy,” said Steve Monfort, John and Adrienne Mars Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “We launched our first black-footed ferret cam last year, and it was thrilling to get such a positive response. The public, and in particular young people, are tuning in for this ‘live’ conservation journey, from the kits’ first moments to getting ready for reintroduction to the wild.”
Black-footed ferrets are North America’s only native ferret species. They once ranged across the western plains but were thought to be extinct until a small population was discovered Sept. 26, 1981, near Meeteetse, Wyoming. Eighteen black-footed ferrets were brought into human care by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to prevent the species from going extinct.
In 1988, SCBI was the first to receive offspring from those 18 and breed black-footed ferrets outside of Wyoming. Since their arrival in 1988, more than 1,000 black-footed ferrets have been born at SCBI, including 140 born via artificial insemination. Depending on their genetic value and ability to hunt live prey, some kits remain in breeding facilities while others are released into the wild. More than 350 kits born at SCBI have gone into preconditioning programs for the chance to be released to the wild. SCBI scientists have helped increase the genetic diversity in the black-footed ferret population using artificial insemination and cryopreserving sperm. Cryopreserved and thawed sperm can inject a much-needed genetic boost into the population.
This is the third litter for Potpie and the first for male black-footed ferret Daly, who was born at SCBI last year. Daly and Potpie received a breeding recommendation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP). The SSP tracks the lineage of individual animals in a record called a “studbook.” When considering which animals to breed, a studbook keeper examines the individuals’ genetic relatedness to one another, overall health and temperament, among other factors, and makes recommendations accordingly. This matchmaking process helps ensure the genetic diversity of a population in human care. Potpie is one of 21 breeding female black-footed ferrets residing at SCBI. Staff anticipate more births at the facility in the coming weeks.
“Potpie is an experienced mother and we’re confident in her abilities to care for and raise these kits,” said Paul Marinari, senior curator of SCBI and black-footed ferret SSP program leader and studbook keeper. “I’m thrilled to share a window into our black-footed ferret program’s world with our virtual visitors. While this is only the beginning of these kits’ individual journeys, we are almost 40 years into the species’ recovery journey and our critical conservation work continues.”
At birth, black-footed ferret kits are blind, weigh less than 10 grams and have a thin layer of white fur covering their bodies. Their signature mask-like markings around their eyes and dark markings on their feet will appear when they are about 3 weeks old. They will open their eyes at around 37 days old. At about 50 days old, they will begin venturing out of their den and exploring the tunnel systems in their enclosures that mimic the prairie dog burrows in which they live in the wild.
The kits will nurse for about a month before sampling from their mom’s diet and eating meat. Around four months old, the kits will separate from their mother. The SSP will conduct a genetic assessment of the entire black-footed ferret population managed in human care in August. This assessment will determine whether the kits remain at SCBI, are transferred to another breeding facility or join the USFWS pre-conditioning program in preparation for their release into the wild. The pre-conditioning program allows ferrets to learn to live in burrows and show they successfully catch prey before being reintroduced to the wild.
The legacy of conservation work at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo extends beyond the public Zoo in Washington, D.C., to SCBI in Front Royal, Virginia. Scientists at SCBI study and breed more than 20 species, including some that were once extinct in the wild, such as black-footed ferrets and scimitar-horned oryx. Animals thrive in specialized barns and building complexes spread over more than 3,200 acres. The sprawling environment allows for unique studies that contribute to the survival of threatened, difficult-to-breed species with distinct needs, especially those requiring large areas, natural group sizes and minimal public disturbance.
SCBI spearheads research programs at its headquarters in Virginia, the Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide. SCBI scientists tackle some of today’s most complex conservation challenges by applying and sharing what they learn about animal behavior and reproduction, ecology, genetics, migration and conservation sustainability.
As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is temporarily closed to the public but will reopen May 21. Visitors must reserve either a free, timed-entry pass for each person in their party if arriving on foot or a paid parking pass if driving and parking at the Zoo. A parking pass serves as admission for all persons arriving in a single vehicle. Detailed guidance on timed-entry passes, parking passes and Asia Trail/Panda Passes is available on the Zoo’s website.
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