Researchers in South Africa say they have rediscovered a species of mole with golden fur that can “swim” through sand dunes. This species has not been seen for more than 80 years and is thought to be extinct.
The golden mole (cryptochloris wintoni) or De Winton’s golden mole is a small animal that digs holes in the ground that is blind, but has “super hearing powers.” This insect-eating animal was discovered on a beach in Port Nolloth, on the west coast of South Africa by a team of researchers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the University of Pretoria.
According to the researchers, this animal has disappeared from scientific observation since 1936.
With the help of sniffer dogs, the team found traces of tunnels and discovered this mole in 2021. But because there are 21 species of golden mole and some look very similar, the team needed more information to confirm that what they found was De Winton’s species.
They sampled environmental DNA (DNA that animals leave behind in skin cells, hair and body excretions) but had to wait until 2022 before a museum in South Africa provided De Winton’s DNA samples from several decades for comparison. The DNA sequences matched.
De Winton’s Golden Mole, a blind mole that lives under the sand and has sensitive hearing that can detect vibrations from movement above the surface, in a leaflet released November 28, 2023. (JP le Roux / Endangered Wildlife Trust / AFP)
The team’s research and findings were peer-reviewed and published last week. One of the researchers, Samantha Mynhardt, told the Associated Press, “We had high hopes, but our hopes were also dashed by some people. One of De Winton’s experts told us, ‘You won’t find the mole. That animal is extinct.”
The process of the researchers’ first trip to the west coast of South Africa to begin searching for the rat, which is known to rarely leave signs of the tunnels it digs and almost “swims” under sand dunes, took three years.
The golden mole is native to sub-Saharan Africa, and the De Winton species has only been found in the Porth Nolloth area.
Two De Winton golden moles have now been confirmed and photographed at Port Nolloth, Mynhardt said. Meanwhile, the research team has found signs of other populations in the area since 2021.
Senior field officer at Endangered Wildlife Trust, Esther Matthew, said: “This is a really exciting project with many challenges. Luckily we have a fantastic team full of enthusiasm and innovative ideas, which is much needed when it comes to surveying 18 kilometers of dune habitat in one day.”
De Winton’s golden mole is on the list of “most wanted lost species.” The list was compiled by the conservation group Re:wild.
Other species on the list that have been rediscovered include a salamander found in Guatemala in 2017, 42 years after its last sighting. Also an elephant shrew, called the Somali sengi, was seen in Djibouti in 2019, the first such sighting after its last known existence in 1968. (em/uh)