‘A story of hope’: Scientists find elusive golden mole for the 1st time in 87 years

As It Happens6:12Scientists find elusive golden mole for the 1st time in 87 years

When a group of conservation scientists set off in search of a long-lost species of South Africa moles in 2021, their colleagues warned them not to get their hopes up.

After all, the last time a scientist had seen a De Winton’s golden mole was in 1936. What’s more, the critically endangered species dwells entirely underground, and is extremely difficult to distinguish from other types of golden moles who share its habitat.

But now, the team from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the University of Pretoria have confirmed the elusive creature lives on. 

“For me, it was always a challenge that we were going to meet, as impossible as it would seem,” project leader Cobus Theron, an EWT conservation manager, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

“But people were skeptical; I’m not going to lie.”

The discovery was published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Small, but mighty

The De Winton’s golden mole — a.k.a. Cryptochloris wintoni — is one of 21 species of golden moles who make their home in South Africa, and one of six that are considered endangered or under threat.

They’re completely blind, tiny enough to hold in your hand, and have iridescent coats of golden fur. 

“The light really bounces off them in a very beautiful way when … they’re exposed to light,” he said. 

The elusive critter is small, but powerful. (Nicky Souness/Re:wild)

They live beneath dunes, navigating their underground habitat using their powerful hearing, and moving with agility that they almost appear to swim through the sand. 

“They are small creatures, but they’ve got incredibly strong abdominal muscles and also very, very strong forearms, if you want to call it, or front limbs,” Theron said. “That allows them to move in loose sand fairly successfully and fairly fast as well.”

Dogs and DNA

So how do you go about looking for an itty bitty creature that lives most of its life entirely out of sight?

“We had high hopes, but we also had our hopes crushed by a few people,” said co-author Samantha Mynhardt, a University of Pretoria post-doctoral researcher. “One De Winton’s expert told us, ‘You’re not going to find that mole. It’s extinct.”‘

But the team had access to tools that scientists from eight decades ago did not. 

They used a trained dog to sniff out places where the critters may have been, then collected what’s called “environmental DNA” from the soil to confirm their presence. 

“Creatures shed DNA when they are in contact with the environment. And through very sensitive analysis, we can pick up that DNA in soil, and we are able to identify the specific species that shed that DNA,” Theron said.

A small, golden-furred mole sniffs some kelp on a sandy beach, its eyes closed.
The De Winton’s golden mole is blind and has a strong sense of hearing, which it uses to navigate its subterranean habitat. (Nicky Souness/Re:wild)

The scientists collected 100 soil samples in June 2021 from beaches and dunes on the northwest coast of South Africa, and found DNA evidence of at least four species of golden mole.

But it was on Port Nolloth beach — the last place the De Winton’s mole had been observed eight decades ago — that they struck gold. 

“It just so happened that while we were collecting samples on a specific beach, we also managed to stumble across one of these golden moles,” Theron said. “People were bouncing, I’m not going to lie.”

It was the first of two De Winton’s golden moles the team would encounter in person on their journey.

But they couldn’t yet be certain they’d found what they were looking for. It would take another year before they were able to compare the DNA to the only known sample at a South African museum. 

The DNA sequences, it turned out, were a match.

‘So much opportunity for conservation’

The discovery was well worth the time and the effort, Theron said. 

“We have so many doom-and-gloom stories about the environment and about conservation and just our human impact on the planet. And so for me, you know, it was really just to say: Can we go out and can we rediscover something? And can we bring excitement and positive stories back?” he said.

“This dune-dwelling mole is really a story of hope. It shows us there’s just so much potential left, you know, and so much opportunity for conservation.”

The De Winton’s golden mole is the 11th creature on the conservation group Re:wild’s most wanted lost species to be rediscovered since 2017.

Others include a salamander that was found in Guatemala in 2017, 42 years after its last sighting; and an elephant shrew called the Somali sengi seen in Djibouti in 2019 for the first time since 1968.

Theron says the moles still face an enormous threat from agriculture, mining projects and residential developments. But by finding them and learning more about them, scientists can gather the information needed to improve conservation efforts.

“As much as there are threats … there are also opportunities — and we will pursue those,” he said. 

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