NewsWorldThis mammal had been lost to science for more...

This mammal had been lost to science for more than 80 years. Now a team may have found it

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(CNN) – Along the west coast of South Africa, a border collie, named Jessie, led its nose along a burrow in the sand.

She tracked down the scent of a golden mole, and her team, from the nonprofit Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), are anxiously watching her every move.

Golden moles, which are about the size of a hamster or a mouse, are small subterranean mammals. The name comes from the iridescent sheen of their fur, which gives them a golden and metallic look and helps them glide under sand dunes. And, since they live almost exclusively underground, they are completely blind.

All of this makes the golden mole very difficult to find. But even more difficult to detect is De Winton’s golden mole, a species lost to science for over 84 years, and the target of the search in South Africa.

Detection techniques

The team is using a variety of detection techniques, from scent-sniffing dogs to DNA analysis. Since De Winton’s golden mole resembles other mole species, DNA is the only way to confirm its rediscovery.

“The De Wintons last met in 1936,” said JP Le Roux, one of the EWT field officers working on the search. “You really only find traces that they were there and when you manage to find one and capture one externally, you really can’t distinguish between other species.”

Samantha Mynhardt, a researcher at the University of Pretoria, is analyzing the environmental DNA of the species, such as hair or skin cells that have shed into the environment over time.

Samantha Mynhardt collects environmental DNA for analysis in the lab (Courtesy of Nicky Souness)

“Our approach is to hunt down these golden mole burrows to collect soil from the burrows and then extract DNA from the soil,” she says. “We can amplify specific genes that we can use for species identification.”

Mynhardt says he is currently completing this process with samples collected during the team’s second expedition in Port Nolloth, a city on the northwest coast of South Africa. From those samples, the team says they hope to find evidence of De Winton’s golden mole, or potentially an entirely new species of golden mole.

“We have collected in the region 100 soil samples from that area and now we are in the laboratory busy analyzing them, preparing them for sequencing,” he said, adding that they hope to have the results “very soon.”

The search for lost species

De Winton’s golden mole is just one of many species that have been lost to science.

For the golden mole project, EWT partnered with conservation group Re: Wild, which collaborates with the IUCN Species Survival Commission each year to develop a list of lost species.

“Our current list of lost species is over 2,000 and covers the entire variety of flora, fauna and fungi around the world,” says Barney Long, Senior Director of Conservation Strategies for Re: Wild.

From this list, 25 species, including De Winton’s golden mole, have been selected as “the 25 most wanted”. Long says some species on the list are being actively sought, while others are in planning and a few are awaiting funding. Some expeditions have been delayed due to the pandemic, it adds.

“The top 25 is really a cross-section that has a mix of interesting species and interesting stories,” says Long. “There are species there that we think will be found and there are species there that are very distant possibilities.”

So far, eight of the most sought-after species have been found, including wallace’s giant bee, the Fernandina tortoise of Galapagos and, more recently, Sierra Leone crab. To be confirmed as rediscovered, Long says there must be both an image of a sighting and DNA evidence.

Of course, the search for lost, possibly extinct species raises ethical questions, Long says.

“The question is when do you give up, when do you decide that there have been enough searches and this is actually extinct,” he says. “There is no easy answer to that.”

On the brink of extinction

Searching for species on the brink of extinction is a daunting task, but techniques are improving. Esther Matthew, a senior field agent in the Golden Mole project and a trainer of Jessie, the dog who detected the scent, says she hopes to train Jessie to distinguish species in the field.

“So far, we just encouraged my scent dog to find signs of gold moles and rewards for traces or anything that points towards gold mole activity,” she said. “But the goal is to train the dog to distinguish between species, so we don’t necessarily have to collect soil samples from every sign in every place.”

The hope is that this will make the search more efficient, speeding up conservation. The team says they need to know where De Winton’s golden moles are before they can implement any kind of protection, because if they don’t know where they are, they don’t know where to focus.

“The area where it is located has been heavily affected by mining in the last few decades,” Mynhardt said. “There is also increasing urban development around Port Nolloth, which poses a significant threat to the species.”

Le Roux adds that finding De Winton’s golden mole can also help indicate the overall health of the environment.

On the west coast of South Africa, where there is an absence of “great megafauna,” the golden mole would be at the top of the food chain, he says, and therefore has a profound influence on the surrounding ecosystem.

“It’s iconic,” says Le Roux. “It is very important that we find him.”

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