FINDING GOLD IN THE DUNES

JP Le Roux, Field Officer, EWT Drylands Conservation Programme
jeanpierrel@ewt.org.za

The Drylands Conservation Programme, with the help of Samantha Mynhardt from the University of Pretoria, will be taking on the exciting task of trying to find one of the most elusive animals in South Africa! The Van Zyl’s Golden Mole is known from only two locations, with the last found in 2003. More than 17 years later, we are on a quest to find them again.

We will be focusing on the Lambert’s Bay area, as this is where the species was last found. The habitat consists of mostly Succulent Karoo strand veld with low elevation, which is perfect for golden moles. On the first trip to do a reconnaissance of the area, we were amazed by the amount of activity, especially from a variety of moles. With the amazement came the realisation of the challenge we are undertaking. Finding Van Zyl’s Golden Mole in a minefield of mole activity is going to be difficult! We visited various farms around the Lambert’s Bay area, going from farm to farm trying to find specific activity associated with golden moles. Most of the mole activity in the area is linked to the Common Mole-rat, which excavates big mounds of soil along its main burrow. Because they live in colonies of up to 14 individuals, their activity can be quite extensive. The Mole-rat activity differs greatly from that left behind by the much smaller golden moles. Golden moles are solitary animals and usually dig their tunnels just below the soil surface (5-10cm deep). The activity mostly consists of a foraging trail extending out from a central point around vegetation. Some areas indicated much more activity, where it was possible to identify specific behaviour along foraging trails such as head dipping. Along with the physical signs indicating that there are golden moles in the area, other promising signs such as the presence of prey items were also found. All these findings show that there are definitely golden moles in the area, but the question still remains whether they are Van Zyl’s or one of the other mole species.

The activities of different golden mole species are relatively similar, which highlights the need for creative ideas to determine the presence of this specific species. Techniques such as scent detection, thermal imaging, and testing the soil for environmental DNA (DNA that is collected from environmental samples, such as soil, rather than from an individual organism)  will be some of our methods to attempt to determine the presence of Van Zyl’s Golden Moles. If these techniques prove to be successful, it will be seen as a rediscovery of the species and will greatly benefit the conservation of the species. Golden moles face many challenges, with the main threats to the species linked to habitat loss from activities such as poor farm / land management and mining.

The team’s first survey will take place in the next few months, and the progress of the project will be presented in follow up articles in Conservation Matters. So, watch this space!

Thanks to Global Wildlife Conservation, for making this project possible through their Lost Species Initiative.