Caturday felid: housecat is surrogate mom to endangered species

March 17, 2012 • 3:38 am

I’ve posted before on the black-footed cat, Felis nigripes, a rarely seen nocturnal hunter from southern Africa. Only 52 individuals are in captivity, and they don’t breed well. The solution is surrogate birth using a common housecat. As Nola.com reports,  this was accomplished for the first time at the Audubon Center for Research In Endangered Species in Algiers, Louisiana, near New Orleans.

In my previous post I reported successful births using frozen embryos, fertilized in vitro, that were implanted into a different female black-footed cat. This time the surrogate mother was of a different species, but the birth went fine. According to Nola.com:

Domestic and African black-footed are different species of cat but members of the same group of felines. Their similar sizes and gestation lengths, Pope said, appear to be what made the pregnancy and birth physically possible even though the genetic makeup of the kitten differed from the mother.

“They’re considered to be of the same lineage,” he said. “Somewhere back a couple of million years ago, they’re descended from the same ancestor.”

Here’s a video of the kitten; notice how wild she is, even at this young age.  Her behavior is undoubtedly genetically hard-wired, as she seems fearful and angry despite the fact that she was handled by humans and reared by a tame mother (see below):

The kitten, named Crystal, was born on Feb. 6 to domestic cat Amelie without any human assistance in the birth itself. It exhibits all the characteristics of a black-footed cat despite being nurtured by a domestic cat mother, Pope said.

“It’s not changed genetically in any way,” from other black-footed cats, he said. “It is totally a black-footed cat in behavior.”

Researchers handle the kitten almost every day as they study it, but she remains decidedly unadapted to human contact.

“It just wants you to leave it alone and stay away from it,” Pope said. “It gets along beautifully with the domestic cat mother. They don’t know, or do not care, that it’s a different species.”

Here’s mom and Crystal:

And here’s an adult black-footed cat:

From Photoblog Erblicken, photo by Stefan Kulpa

The embryo was created in 2003, so they can remain viable for at least nine years.  The next step in the process will be to produce cloned kitten by injecting nuclei from “regular” cells into fertilized eggs from housecats, which are easily obtained:

Solving the problem of using cloned embryos will be one of the next steps in the center’s long history of breakthrough genetic work, which includes a previous birth of another type of wild kitten to a domestic cat, the first wildcats born to cloned parents, the cloning of sand cats, caracal cats and African wildcats and even a kitten born with eyes, gums and a tongue that glow green under ultraviolet light. That showed it is possible to introduce a new gene to an animal without hurting it, which has medical ramifications for humans in the development of gene therapy. The center also works on reproduction programs for endangered birds: Mississippi sandhill cranes and whopping cranes.

Audubon Senior Scientist Martha Gomez said she has created cloned embryos using egg cells from domestic cats and replacing their nuclei with material from skin cells of African black-footed cats. Using skin cells potentially expands the methods of producing kittens even further because the cells are numerous and can be saved from animals that have died.

But none of the pregnancies have lasted, Gomez said. The arrival of Crystal narrows the field of possible causes by proving domestic cats can carry black-footed kittens. Gomez said she now can focus on fixing flaws in the genetic information of the cloned embryos.

h/t: Dom, Michael

16 thoughts on “Caturday felid: housecat is surrogate mom to endangered species

  1. A whopping crane, you say?

    I’m not usually one for pointing out spelling errors, or for using internet slang, but this one literally made me lol. Just how big are they, anyway?

  2. In what sense is cloning the next logical step? Sure, you could produce more animals faster that way, but using mitochondria from domestic cats means you can no longer say “It’s not changed genetically in any way” or “It is totally a black-footed cat”.

    Maybe that’s OK if you clone only male cats, and breed them back to frozen-embryo females like Crystal. But if the goal is to preserve the wild lineage intact, then muddying the waters (however slightly) with cloned mitochondrial genes seems to me like a step in the wrong direction.

    But hey, I’m not an expert, so maybe I’ve got the wrong end of it somehow.

  3. You could totally do this with human surrogates and gorilla or chimp embryos, not that I think you’d find lots of volunteers.

  4. My first thought is, what role if any does epigenetics play in the wildness of this kittens behavior? Can ferocious behavior like hoarding behavior be passed down through several generations without changing DNA?

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