This kitten, born in 2011, is an endangered black-footed cat, one of the first black-footed kittens born to a surrogate mother, using frozen embryos and in vitro fertilization. Now he and his littermate have a sister, Crystal, with the same genetic parents, but a different surrogate mom — a plain old housecat.

The African black-footed cat is one of the world’s smallest felines, and the cats are tiny but fierce hunters — they can kill hares that outweigh them. They can also range far from water, finding hydration from their prey and dew they lick off of grass. But none of this general feline badassery has kept the species from becoming severely endangered — there are only 40 in captivity worldwide.

The Audubon Nature Institute in Louisiana, which bred Crystal and her brothers, is interested in using domestic cats as surrogates for a range of endangered and threatened kitties. These kittens might look like any cute kitten, but it’s pretty incredible to see one species give birth to another. The Times-Picayune asked the center how exactly these pregnancies work:

Their similar sizes and gestation lengths, [acting director Earle] 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.”

And actually, the center’s trying all sorts of crazy things with kittens. Researchers had a domestic cat surrogate another type of wild kitten, cloned a few kinds of wild cats, and made a kitten with “eyes, gums and a tongue that glow green under ultraviolet light,” the Times-Picayune reported.

It’s all in the service of keeping kitties like these from going extinct, a project that we’re fully behind, even if it means a couple of terrifying death-dealing laser cats along the way. Especially since black-footed kittens grow into black-footed cats like this one:

Photo by Charles Barilleaux.
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