De Winton’s Golden Mole, a blind mole that lives beneath the sand and has sensitive hearing that can detect vibrations from movement above the surface.—AFP
De Winton’s Golden Mole, a blind mole that lives beneath the sand and has sensitive hearing that can detect vibrations from movement above the surface.—AFP

JOHANNESBURG: A golden mole that “swims” in sand has resurfaced in South Africa after 87 years in the wilderness when many specialists feared it had become extinct, researchers have said.

Traces of two De Winton’s golden moles have been found under the sands of a beach after a “detective novel search”, said Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) senior field officer Esther Matthew on Tuesday.

EWT and University of Pretoria researchers covered up to 18 kilometres of dune habitat a day as they spent months hunting for signs, said Matthew. The blind moles are cute but excessively timid.

They pick inaccessible areas to burrow homes and have extremely sensitive hearing to detect ground vibrations made by anyone who could be looking for them. The last scientific trace dates back to 1936.

The team used a scent-detecting Border Collie dog, Jessie, to find traces of the moles’ tunnels.

There are 21 species of golden moles and the De Winton’s were detected using environmental DNA samples — skin, hair and bodily excretions — taken from soil at Port Nolloth beach on the northwest coast. More than 100 samples were collected from the dunes.

Even now the researchers have not physically seen the blind mole that has an iridescent coat sheen that allows it to “swim” through sand. To finally make a connection, they have made videos and taken photos.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2023

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