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The sand-swimming golden mole, which was feared to be extinct, has been rediscovered after 86 years of being thought to have disappeared.

A rare, shimmering golden mole, that had not been seen since before World War II, was recently found “swimming” in the sand near the seaside town of Port Nolloth in the north-western region of South Africa.

The De Winton’s golden mole, known as Cryptochloris wintoni, was believed to be extinct but has been found to still exist. It resides in underground tunnels and has not been observed since 1937. Its name “golden” comes from the slick secretions that coat its fur, allowing it to move through sand dunes like a swimmer. As it does not dig conventional tunnels, it is difficult to detect.

The animal is visually impaired and depends on its acute hearing. It will quickly run away if it detects any vibrations from movement on the surface. It has been recognized as one of the top missing species on a list created by the international conservation organization Re:wild.

After 86 years since its last sighting, the mole has finally been found again with the help of conservationists and a trained border collie named Jessie. The discovery was detailed in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Esther Matthew, a senior field officer at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), expressed her excitement about being on a team dedicated to finding endangered species. She also mentioned that finding a lost species was the icing on the cake.

A De Winton’s golden mole on the dunes in South Africa

Scientists from EWT and the University of Pretoria collaborated with Jessie, a canine who indicated the presence of a scent by laying down at the location. Jessie was given a reward of playing with her tennis ball for her assistance.

As she paused, they gathered a sample of soil, which was subsequently examined for environmental DNA (eDNA). This method can identify DNA from skin cells, urine, feces, and mucus that the moles leave behind as they navigate through the dunes. By utilizing this approach, the group covered a maximum distance of 18km (11.2 miles) in a single day while searching the dunes. In total, they collected 100 sand samples and ultimately came across two De Winton golden moles.

San tracks left by the De Winton golden mole

In 2021, the team conducted field research and believed they had identified the mole. However, De Winton’s appearance closely resembled that of other golden moles, so the discovery was not verified until genetic sequencing was performed on samples.

Cobus Theron, a senior conservation manager at EWT and member of the search team, expressed confidence in the continued existence of De Winton’s golden mole despite doubts from others. Through their efforts, they not only proved the species still exists, but also discovered the potential of eDNA technology for locating other endangered or missing species.

There are a total of 21 recognized types of golden moles, with the majority found exclusively in South Africa. The group uncovered proof of three additional species, including the endangered Van Zyl’s golden mole.

In 2021, the study discovered four additional groups of De Winton’s golden moles, and experts suggest that Port Nolloth houses a thriving population of these moles. However, this region is not safeguarded and is at risk due to diamond mining.

“We must pinpoint specific regions to prioritize our conservation endeavors and establish protected areas to ensure the preservation of these species,” stated JP Le Roux, a former field officer for EWT.

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X (formerly known as Twitter) for all the latest news and features

Source: theguardian.com