It was feared extinct, but in positive news, a species of golden mole not seen in over 80 years has been rediscovered.
Researchers have been extensively looking for the De Winton’s golden mole, which was last spotted in 1937, and finally found the adorable little creature in the sand dunes of South Africa. Whilst most moles make their home deep in soil, the golden mole lives exclusively in sand, which it swims through, creating inaccessible burrows in which it resides.
The researchers’ search for the golden mole started with them taking more than 100 samples of sand and analysing them for environmental DNA (eDNA) — DNA traces of the animal left in its environment through excretions, skin cells and hair.
“We were fairly confident that if De Winton’s golden mole was in the environment, we would be able to detect it by finding and sequencing its DNA,” Samantha Mynhardt, a conservation geneticist with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said in a statement.
The De Winton’s golden mole has only ever been found in one small area- Port Nolloth, on South Africa’s Northwest coast. However, with many other species of golden mole living in this area, the team of researchers had to find a way to differentiate between more common moles. After finding fresh golden mole tracks, a trained sniffer dog was let loose in the area. This dog was trained to react to the two most common golden moles: Cape golden mole (Chrysochloris asiatica) and Grant’s golden mole (Eremitalpa granti). As the dog didn’t react to the trail, it was evidence of a rarer golden mole.
Once the results of the eDNA tests taken from the 100 samples of sand in Port Nolloth came back, the two common golden moles’ DNA was revealed, as were two other sets of DNA. One belonging to the endangered Van Zyl’s golden mole (Cryptochloris zyli), and another unknown. Whilst scientists thought this belonged to the thought-to-be-extinct De Winton’s, they had no way of proving it. That is until a DNA sample from a De Winton’s golden mole specimen, that is now kept at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, became available for study. The genes from the specimen matches the unknown mole from the samples.
Back from extinction
Since their rediscovery, four more populations of De Winton’s golden mole have been found. Though some researchers always believed they were still out there:
“Though many people doubted that De Winton’s golden mole was still out there, I had good faith that the species had not yet gone extinct,” says Cobus Theron, senior conservation manager for EWT and member of the mole search team. “I was convinced it would just take the right detection method, the proper timing, and a team passionate about finding it,” he added.
“Now not only have we solved the riddle, but we have tapped into this eDNA frontier where there is a huge amount of opportunity not only for moles, but for other lost or imperiled species.”
Not actually moles
Despite their incredible resemblance to moles, and being named as such, golden moles such as the De Winton’s golden mole isn’t actually a mole at all. In fact, these insectivorous mammals are closer in relation to otter shrews and tenrecs. The golden mole does share many features with moles. Thanks to a phenomenon known as evolutionary convergence, animals that are not closely related may share many features. Like moles they have powerful claws for digging, and spend most of their lives underground, with non-functional eyes.