Image: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian's National Zoo
The black-footed ferret litter shown above isn't just cute and cuddly; it also represents great strides in bringing the species back from extinction. Black-footed ferret populations drastically diminished in the 20th century due to the Great Plains being converted for agricultural purposes. At that time, prairie dogs – the ferrets’ primary food source – were eradicated.
Black-footed ferrets were considered extinct until a small population of nine was discovered in South Dakota in 1964. The last ferret in captivity died in 1979, and the species was again thought to be wiped out until a group of 18 black-footed ferrets was discovered living in Wyoming in 1981. At that point, the species was labeled "critically endangered." Since then, however, wildlife conservationists have increased the numbers of the species to more than 2,600 in the wild.
This summer, a breakthrough by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute involving artificial insemination from cryopreserved samples further increased and will continue to grow the number of black-footed ferrets.
Don't miss the adorable video below, and see additional photos and read specifics about the process of artificial insemination to increase the numbers in the species at Zooborns.