HIDDEN IN THE GOLDEN SANDS OF TIME

Golden Moles Part One

Esther Matthew, EWT Drylands Conservation Programme, Senior Field Officer, estherm@ewt.org.za

In 2021, a group of intrepid explorers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust embarked on a quest through the drylands of the Northern Cape to find something far more precious than gold.

Cobus Theron, Dr Samantha Mynhardt, JP Le Roux, Esther Matthew, and Esther’s detection dog, Jessie, set out to find the Critically Endangered De Winton’s Golden Mole, a species that hasn’t been seen for more than 80 years. The team planned to use environmental DNA (eDNA) to identify these mysterious moles. eDNA refers to trace amounts of DNA that organisms ‘shed’ or leave behind in their environment in the form of skin cells, hair, blood, or scat. No, this isn’t an episode of CSI, but it’s much more exciting!

The expedition time (left to right)

Dr Samantha Mynhardt, JP Le Roux, Cobus Theron, Jessie the Border Collie, and Esther Matthew. Photo credit: Nicky Souness

Their starting point was the site where the golden moles were last seen over eight decades ago – the dunes of Port Nolloth. JP Le Roux is a master scout, proficient at finding sites showing recent golden mole activity where the team could collect soil samples – hopefully containing eDNA from their target species. Another tool up our sleeve is  Jessie, the Border Collie, a scent detection dog trained to detect and track various species, including the notoriously difficult to find Riverine Rabbit. She is now training to differentiate between different golden moles species, and when Jessie picks up the scent of a specific golden mole, she alerts her handler. The golden mole active at the expedition site in Port Nolloth was not one Jessie had smelled before – a promising and exciting indication.

Foraging signs from a golden mole (left) and Grant’s Golden Mole (right), a species Jessie has been trained to detect

Traditionally, eDNA is applied to aquatic environments, and working with terrestrial eDNA is a novel and challenging technique, but Samantha has successfully adapted it to soil samples. Upon her return from Port Nolloth, she extracted and analysed the eDNA through a specialised process. Preliminary results confirm that the activity seen at sample sites was that of a Cryptochloris species, either De Winton’s or its close relation, the Endangered Van Zyl’s Golden Mole. Either one is an extraordinary find, and we eagerly await more detailed results.

Finding De Winton’s Golden Mole would be a beacon of hope for conservationists – indicating that hidden wonders still wait to be discovered. Locating the areas inhabited by threatened species enables us to better protect them against the threats that endanger our wildlife, sometimes causing species to go extinct. The team will continue their research on the West Coast, hoping to find more locations inhabited by golden moles and increase community awareness and engagement around the species through social media campaigns, videos, and posters illustrating identifying features of different golden mole species.

We encourage people to report sightings of these fascinating creatures so that we can prioritise our conservation efforts, one of which is to formally secure sites containing priority golden mole habitat through biodiversity stewardship. Stay tuned to learn more!

The expedition was sponsored by Re: Wild, and the second phase of the project is supported by  IUCN Save Our Species and co-funded by the European Union.

Poster identifying the golden mole species in South Africa's Drylands