Back from the brink: sand-swimming golden mole, feared extinct, rediscovered after 86 years – The Guardian

Border collie Jessie sniffs out elusive species last seen in 1937 among dunes of South Africa
An elusive, iridescent golden mole not recorded since before the second world war has been rediscovered “swimming” in the sand near the coastal town of Port Nolloth in north-west South Africa.
The De Winton’s golden mole (Cryptochloris wintoni), previously feared extinct, lives in underground burrows and had not been seen since 1937. It gets its “golden” name from oily secretions that lubricate its fur so it can “swim” through sand dunes. This means it does not create conventional tunnels, making it all the harder to detect.
It is also blind, relying on its highly sensitive hearing, and bolting if it senses vibrations caused by movement above ground. It has been featured among the “most wanted” on a list of lost species compiled by the global conservation group Re:wild.
The mole has now been rediscovered 86 years after its last sighting, thanks to a two-year search by conservationists and a border collie dog called Jessie, who was trained to sniff out golden moles. Their findings have been published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
“It was very exciting to be part of a team looking for lost species. The cherry on the cake is finding one,” said Esther Matthew, senior field officer at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
Researchers from EWT and the University of Pretoria worked with Jessie the dog, who alerted them by lying down on the spot when she found the scent. Jessie was rewarded for her efforts by being allowed to play with her tennis ball.
Each time she stopped, they collected a soil sample, which was later tested for environmental DNA (eDNA). This detects DNA from skin cells, urine, faeces and mucous, which the moles release as they move through the dunes. Using this technique, the team searched up to 18km (11.2 miles) of dunes in a day. They collected 100 samples of sand in total, and eventually encountered two De Winton golden moles.
Field research was done in 2021, and the team thought they might have found the mole, but De Winton’s looks very similar to other golden moles, so the finding was not confirmed until samples were genetically sequenced.
“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,” said Cobus Theron, senior conservation manager at EWT and a member of the search team. “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 imperilled species.”
There are 21 known species of golden moles, most living only in South Africa. The team found evidence of three other moles, including the Van Zyl’s golden mole, which is also endangered.
Since the research was carried out in 2021, EWT has found four more populations of De Winton’s golden moles, and researchers believe Port Nolloth is home to a healthy population of them. However, the area is not protected and is threatened by diamond-mining.
“​​We need to identify areas to focus our conservation [efforts] on … and secure protected areas to make sure there are still strongholds for these species,” said JP Le Roux, a former EWT field officer.
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