Conservation & Science

Research is an important part of Black-footed Ferret Recovery. The following is a short summary of completed and ongoing research, as well as future research needs.

Completed Research:

  • Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) Vaccine: CDV is an endemic disease whose mortality approaches 100% in black-footed ferrets. Research has shown that the standard CDV vaccines used for domestic ferrets and other animals cause high mortality in black-footed ferrets. Thanks to numerous research projects, we currently have a safe and effective CDV vaccine that is administered to both captive and wild-born ferrets.
  • F1-V (Plague Vaccine): Plague is a foreign disease that is 100% fatal in ferrets, and is one of the largest obstacles affecting black-footed ferret recovery. Advances in vaccine research have provided a vaccine that is safe and effective in ferrets. This vaccine is currently being administered to captive and wild-born ferrets.
  • Preconditioning: Many strategies were attempted to give ferrets the best chance of survival in wild when coming from a captive setting. Several studies were performed, and concluded that preconditioning (providing ferrets access to outdoor pens with prairie dog burrows and live prey in a controlled setting) gave ferrets the best chance of survival in the wild. Since 1996, all captive ferrets reintroduced to the wild have been pre-conditioned.
  • Reproduction/Captive Breeding/Husbandry: Many significant advances were made through adaptive management and research in the husbandry and propagation of ferrets. Studies on diet, caging, reproduction, behavior, enrichment, captive ferret diseases and much more have been done to make captive breeding a success. To date, over 7100 kits have been born in captivity.
  • Telemetry: Research in telemetry has given an enormous amount of information on the ferrets’ behavior and ecology in the wild. Without this information, ferret reintroduction would be even more challenging.

Current Research

  • PD Plague Vaccine: Plague affects prairie dogs as well as ferrets. It can decimate prairie dog colonies, which the ferrets depend on for food and shelter. Research is on-going for an effective plague vaccine for prairie dogs. This would potentially keep plague at low enough levels that it would not cause declines in prairie dog populations and therefore not cause ferret mortality due to loss of prey/habitat.
  • Plague Ecology: Current studies on plague reservoirs and transmission will help to advance knowledge of this disease, and in turn help to control outbreaks in prairie dog colonies. Much more research is needed in the field of plague ecology.
  • Predator Control: It is well known from previous research that predators cause ferret mortality, and the mortality is higher for newly released ferrets. Studies occurring at different release sites are focusing on different measures to control predators with non-lethal methods.
  • Improve Captive Breeding Production: Adaptive management is a successful strategy for maintaining animals in captivity. Biologists are continually monitoring methods and making improvements. Current research projects include studies focused on non-invasive pregnancy detection and endocrine (or hormonal) control of reproduction to develop methods to assist with fertility assessment of the captive population. Additionally, investigations are underway to help determine why some individuals are more successful at producing offspring than others by comparing hormone concentrations and fertility analysis.
  • Artificial Insemination: Spearheaded by the late Dr. JoGayle Howard,a Theriogenologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the black-footed ferret program utilizes fresh and frozen-thawed semen for artificial insemination. This technique allows the use of males that may otherwise not be paired with a female (due to behavioral incompatibilities) or to resurrect males that are no longer alive to sire offspring.

Future Research:

  • Plague is the main focus of research for the near future. Many questions still need to be answered.
  • Other research needed in the future includes topics such as genetic diversity, captive ferret health & disease, reproduction, ferret behavior in the wild, and much more.
  • Semen cryopreservation: Under the mentorship of Dr. JoGayle Howard, Dr. Rachel Santymire, a scientist at the Lincoln Park Zoo, continues to cryopreserve semen samples from males to store in the long-term Genome Resource Bank. Research continues to improve cryopreservation methods to ensure future use of these samples.

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