Thanks to a sniffing dog and traces of DNA left in the sand, scientists have found a species of golden mole once thought to be “possibly extinct.”
The researchers spotted the creature, called De Winton’s golden mole, along the west coast of South Africa. The findings “suggest that this species may in fact be widespread, but not necessarily abundant,” the researchers write in a November study published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
With their search effort, which was conducted in 2021, the team detected four total golden mole species and improved the records of their distribution.
“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,” Cobus Theron, a co-author of the study and senior conservation manager for the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) in South Africa, says in a statement from Re:wild, a conservation group that was a partner in the research.
De Winton’s golden mole hadn’t been recorded since 1936 and is one of 21 species of golden mole. Ten of these species are listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and De Winton’s is listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct.
Golden moles are blind, but they have strong navigational abilities and enhanced hearing that can detect prey underground. The mammals get their name from the iridescent oil they release that lubricates their fur as they dig through sand. However, their movement through dunes doesn’t produce traceable tunnels, making the moles even more difficult to detect.
As diamond mining in South Africa threatens the habitat of De Winton’s golden mole, the study authors wanted to determine whether any members of the species still existed and map their distribution, along with that of three other species.
To confirm a finding of De Winton’s golden mole, the team was going to need two things: a photo of the creature and DNA evidence. Since the critically endangered species looks like other golden moles, the genetic confirmation would be key, CNN’s Stephanie Bailey wrote in 2021.
The researchers started by interviewing local community members in South Africa at locations where the animal might be living. They trained a border collie named Jessie to lie on the ground when she smelled a different golden mole species, since they didn’t have a sample of De Winton’s golden mole to train her on.
When the team found golden mole tracks and burrows and Jessie didn’t lie down, that suggested De Winton’s golden moles might be in the area.
At each site the dog identified, the team collected environmental DNA, or eDNA. This genetic material shed by organisms and left behind in the environment can be extracted from feces, mucus, skin, hair and carcasses. With advancements in collecting and sequencing eDNA, researchers have previously used it to study species that are endangered, rare or otherwise difficult to capture. It allows scientists to identify the presence of animals and study their movement across space and time without having to capture or even see them.
During their 2021 field work, the researchers collected eDNA that didn’t match up with other golden mole species. But they weren’t able to confirm it was from De Winton’s golden mole until the following year, when a separate team sequenced the species’ DNA from a specimen at a museum in South Africa, per Re:wild.
The researchers used the eDNA data to confirm the presence of four species of golden mole and map which areas they occupy along South Africa’s west coast. Since the 2021 expedition, the team has found evidence of four additional golden mole species, according to the Guardian’s Phoebe Weston.
The researchers say it will be important to gather more data on the distribution and abundance of De Winton’s golden moles due to the threat presented by diamond mining.
“We need to identify areas to focus our conservation [efforts]… and secure protected areas to make sure there’s still strongholds for these species,” JP Le Roux, a co-author of the study and former EWT field officer, says in a Re:wild statement.
“A lot of the conservation focus is on the more charismatic and big animals that people see often, while the rare ones that probably need more help are the ones that need more publicity,” Esther Matthew, a co-author of the study and senior field officer at EWT, says in the statement.