Scientists thought it was gone forever. Traces of the "golden mole", a small blind animal with an iridescent coat but hyperdeveloped hearing, have been found for the first time after an 87-year absence in South Africa.
A team of researchers from a local NGO and the University of Pretoria, which has been tracking the insectivorous mammal since 2021, announced in a statement on Tuesday that it had spotted two specimens of the species known to "swim" in the sand on the beaches around the small port town of Port Nolloth, in the northwest of the country.
The animal was last seen, in the memory of scientists, in 1936.
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The task for conservators and geneticists has been a daunting one: "Up to 18 km of habitat dug into the dunes" has been excavated every day, Esther Matthew, field manager for the South African NGO Trust for Endangered Wildlife (EWT), told AFP.
Scientifically known as Winton's mole, the animal generally lives in burrows that are difficult for humans to access. Her keen hearing, which allows her to detect movement on the ground through vibrations, also likely helped her flee from the teams looking for her.
"We can still save it"
"It's also very difficult to find the golden mole because the tunnel it digs while swimming in the sand collapses behind it. It leaves no trace," says Esther Matthew.
So the scientists used environmental DNA to detect the animal's presence, picking up genetic traces it had inadvertently left here and there in the form of skin cells, hair, and body secretions. The researchers also located the moles with a dog, "just like in a detective novel," Matthew said.
Now that "we know that the golden mole still exists, we know that we can still save it," said Devin Murphy of the NGO Re: Wild, an organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of biodiversity, which is partnering with the scientists' research for the occasion.
The golden mole is a species threatened by mining and the development of residential areas near beaches, which encroach on their natural habitat, denounce conservationists.