Black-Footed Ferret Biomedical Survey

What is the BFF Biomedical Survey?

Prairie Wildlife Research (PWR), with our partners at Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZoo) in Chicago, are leading a Biomedical Survey of black-footed ferrets across North America. What is the Black-Footed Ferret Biomedical Survey? It is a planned sampling of animals both in the wild and captivity to better understand the genetic, morphological, reproductive, disease and overall health issues that may be affecting black-footed ferrets. We conducted an initial survey from 2002-2006 with partners at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Kansas State University and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The survey was initiated because normal black-footed ferret reproductive parameters declined sharply in captivity. Was this due to diet? Stress? Genetics? Maybe even a disease? Is this happening to black-footed ferrets in the wild as well? An overall assessment was needed and the Biomedical Survey was born. PWR and LPZoo re-started the BFF Biomedical Survey in 2014 to see if anything has changed since the initial survey and investigate new challenges to black-footed ferrets.

What does the BFF Biomedical Survey entail?

In both the initial and current Biomedical Survey we visited sites across North America where black-footed ferrets were reintroduced and surviving in the wild including Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Mexico. Captive animals were sampled at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the National Black-Footed Ferret Conservation Center. The initial survey consisted of more than 250 wild black-footed ferrets sampled and 100 more were sampled in the current survey. This involved coordination with the site we were visiting to find and capture black-footed ferrets. They were then brought to a mobile trailer where the animals were anesthetized and samples were taken, including blood, fleas, ticks, hair for stress and diet analysis, cheek cells for DNA, fecal material, multiple body measurements are made, vaccines administered, vital signs checked, and for males in the spring months we sample reproductive materials. Everything is done as quickly and efficiently as possible to minimize stress and handling of the animals. They are returned to the wild as soon as possible and released at the exact spot they were captured.

What is the BFF Biomedical Survey finding? Thus far we have some interesting findings regarding genetics, diet, diseases and more that may be affecting black-footed ferret recovery. Genetics are a pretty big deal for black-footed ferrets because every individual alive today is descended from 7 individuals. We found that when you release black-footed ferrets into the wild and the population grows or receives more captive animals that genetic diversity is maintained very well. When a population grows slowly or does not receive any new captive individuals then genetic diversity is lower. Read the published paper. After captive black-footed ferrets are returned to the wild and begin reproducing the young born in the wild end up being larger than their captive-born parents. In other words, captivity has made black-footed ferrets a little bit smaller, perhaps because they have limited space and do not need to hunt for food. Read the published paper here. Diet in captivity may be affecting the reproduction of black-footed ferrets and the BFF Biomedical Survey found that high levels of Vitamin A were to blame. Read the abstract here. It can be difficult to determine how old a black-footed ferret is in the wild and figuring out the age structure of a wild population is important in understanding survival. We developed a technique using teeth to differentiate adults from kits (young) in the wild. Read the published paper here. Collecting and freezing reproductive materials for future use has been incredibly important for maintaining genetic diversity for black-footed ferrets. Reproductive material from a black-footed ferret that died 20 years ago was used to produce young in recent years. Read the abstract here.

What are the next steps for the BFF Biomedical Survey?

Black-footed ferret recovery still faces several challenges such as maintaining genetic diversity, understanding the roles of diseases in persistence of wild populations, and factors that may be affecting their reproduction and survival in the wild. We continue to sample black-footed ferrets at field sites as we find diseases, like tularemia, in them but are unsure how it may be affecting them. Black-footed ferrets are susceptible to several diseases and vectors such as ticks and fleas may play a large role in transmitting disease. We continue to monitor diseases in black-footed ferrets to understand how they are affecting survival. Black-footed ferrets in the wild must hunt for food, avoid predators, keep warm and fight for survival, which can sometimes be reflected in the quality of reproductive materials. We continue to collect reproductive materials to maintain a biobank for future use. Genetics will continue to play an important role in black-footed ferret recovery and monitoring the genetics of wild populations is important. We continue to learn more about black-footed ferret genetics and how genetic diversity changes through time. These are some of the issues that the BFF Biomedical Survey will continue to address over the next several years. This project needs support to continue and you can help us today by donating!

A black-footed ferret with unusually light face mask and feet in South Dakota. Also covered with fleas.
Field site setup for the BFF Biomedical Survey in Arizona, March 2005.
Setup for the Biomedical Survey in South Dakota, March 2003.