She’s tracking the scent of a golden mole — and her team, from non-profit Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), is anxiously watching her every move.
About the size of a hamster or mouse, golden moles are small, subterranean mammals. The name comes from the iridescent sheen on their coat, which gives them a golden, metallic appearance and helps them glide underneath sand dunes. Living almost exclusively underground, they are completely blind.
The team is using a variety of detection techniques, from scent detection dogs to DNA analysis. As De Winton’s golden mole looks like other species of mole, DNA is the only way to confirm its rediscovery.
“De Winton’s were last found in 1936,” says JP Le Roux, one of the EWT field officers working on the search. “You only really find traces that they were there and when you do manage to find one and you capture one externally, you can’t really distinguish between other species.”
Samantha Mynhardt, a researcher at the University of Pretoria, is analyzing the species’ environmental DNA — such as hair or skin cells it has shed into the environment over time.
Samantha Mynhardt collects environmental DNA to analyze in the lab (Courtesy Nicky Souness)
“Our approach is to search for these golden mole burrows to collect soil from the burrows and then extract DNA from the soil,” she says. “We’re able to amplify specific genes that we can use for species identification.”
Mynhardt says she is currently completing this process with samples collected during the team’s second expedition in Port Nolloth, a town on the northwestern coast of South Africa. From those samples, the team says they expect to find evidence of De Winton’s golden mole — or potentially an entirely new species of golden mole.
“We’ve collected in the region of 100 soil samples from that area and now we are in the lab busy analyzing them, preparing them for sequencing,” she says, adding they hope to have the results “very soon.”
The search for lost species
De Winton’s golden mole is just one of many species that have been lost to science.
“Our current list of lost species is over 2,000 and they cover the whole breadth of flora, fauna and fungi across the world,” says Barney Long, Re:wild’s senior director of conservation strategies.
Of this list, 25 species — including De Winton’s golden mole — have been selected as the “top 25 most wanted.” Long says some species on the list are being actively searched for, while others are in planning and a small few are awaiting funding. Some expeditions have been delayed due to the pandemic, he adds.
“The top 25 is really a representative sample that has a mixture of interesting species and interesting stories,” says Long. “There’s species on there that we think will be found and there’s species on there that are very much long shots.”
Of course, searching for lost — possibly extinct — species, raises ethical questions, says Long.
“The question is when do you give up, when do you decide there’s been enough searching and this is actually extinct,” he says. “There’s no easy answer to that.”
The edge of extinction
Searching for species on the edge of extinction is a huge task, but techniques are improving. Esther Matthew, a senior field officer on the golden mole project and handler of Jessie, the scent detection dog, says that she is hoping to train Jessie to tell species apart in the field.
Jessie and her handler Esther Matthew search for traces of golden mole (Courtesy Nicky Souness)
“Up until now, we have just encouraged my scent detection dog to show signs of golden moles and rewards for trails or anything that points towards golden mole activity,” she says. “But the goal is to train the dog to distinguish between species, so we don’t necessarily have to collect soil samples from all the signs at all the locations.”
The hope is this will make the search more efficient, which will speed up conservation. The team says they need to know where De Winton’s golden moles are before they can implement any type of protection — because if they don’t know where they are, they don’t know where to focus.
“The area where it’s found has been heavily impacted by mining over the past few decades,” says Mynhardt. “There’s also growing urban development around Port Nolloth that poses a significant threat to the species.”
Le Roux adds that finding De Winton’s golden mole can also help to indicate the health of the wider environment.
On South Africa’s west coast, where there’s an absence of “big megafauna,” the golden mole would be at the top of the food chain, he says, and therefore has a profound influence on the surrounding ecosystem.
“It’s iconic,” says Le Roux. “It’s really important that we find it.”