Who is it about? From an iridescent blind mole with hearing superpowers. It has been rediscovered in sand dunes in South Africa, 87 years after being described to science. It was one of the most wanted animals in the world. How did they find it?
The new discovery of Winton’s golden mole was confirmed by environmental DNA analysis. They were made by a team of conservationists and geneticists from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the University of Pretoria. The results of the study are published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
It is the eleventh species of an international initiative launched in 2017. It was done to find the 25 most wanted lost animals in the world. The team used the emerging technique of eDNA, which is the DNA that animals shed as they move through the environment. It is generally in the form of skin cells, hair, and body excretions. In addition to living in largely inaccessible burrows, golden moles have extremely sensitive hearing. They can detect vibrations from movement above the ground, which helps them avoid being seen from the surface. They rarely leave tunnels that are visible from the surface as they move beneath the sand.
«Extracting DNA from soil is not without challenges. But we refined our techniques even before this project. We were pretty sure that if Winton’s golden mole was in the environment, we would be able to detect it. Samantha Mynhardt, a conservation geneticist at Stellenbosch University, said this in a statement.
Tracking down the fugitive
They collected more than 100 soil samples in June 2021. They scoured beaches and dunes on the northwest coast of South Africa, including Port Nolloth Beach. It was the only place where Winton’s golden mole had been found in 1936. This is how they tracked down one of the most wanted animals in the world. There were several species of golden mole that live in the sand along the stretch of coast.
The challenge was to determine whether De Winton’s golden mole was one of them, as only one reference DNA was available. They had to wait a year until a second genetic sequence of the species was available. It was in a museum in Cape Town. This allowed the identity to finally be confirmed.