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Scientists thought this tiny, blind mole was extinct for over 85 years, but they were wrong

An up close photo of De Winton's golden mole on sandy substrate and leaves.
Nix Souness*
  • De Winton's golden mole was last spotted in 1937, leading researchers to believe it went extinct.

  • Researchers collected soil samples to try and find genetic evidence that the moles were still alive.

  • They found that evidence, and two living De Winton's moles, which they photographed.

Five scientists and one border collie set out to find an animal thought to be extinct for over 80 years by following the ever-changing treasure map of the sand.

They were searching for signs of De Winton's golden mole, which is a small, shiny, blind mammal that uses strong paws to tunnel under sand in South Africa.

The team of scientists were trying to find evidence that the tiny animal was still alive, using genetic analysis, which was daunting enough.

To their surprise, they found and temporarily caught two living moles, Samantha Mynhardt, a molecular biologist a Stellenbosch University, told Business Insider.

"We didn't think that we would actually find a live animal. So that was really an exciting find for us," Mynhardt said.

These results were published in a paper at the end of November in the peer-reviewed journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

How they found the missing mole

A photo of the sand disturbed by golden moles in South Africa.
De Winton's golden moles swim under the sand, leaving these tunnels as evidence.Nicky Souness

When animals move around their environment, they shed little bits of hair, fluid, and skin. Think of someone who owns a golden retriever putting on a black sweater — living things leave traces of themselves in their environments.

When processed, these traces can reveal an animal's unique DNA.

Knowing this, Mynhardt and her team went to the sands of South Africa's McDougal's Bay, where the last known sighting of the mole was recorded in 1937.

Many species of golden mole live in the area, and they leave raised tracks on the surface of the beach where they tunnel through the sand beneath.

So the researchers brought a border collie named Jessie, who was trained to identify all species of golden mole except for De Winton's, to the scene, Mynhardt told BI.

Each time they found a mole tunnel, they used Jessie to check if it was a known species, or whether it might be the one they were looking for — process of elimination style.

Armed with sterile gloves and teaspoons, they collected 49 samples of sand from the tunnels that they thought might have housed De Winton's moles. They also took samples and photographs from a few of the live moles they came across in the process.

Later, they purified those samples in the lab, separating the strands of DNA from the soil.

When they compared what they had against a sample from a De Winton's golden mole housed in a museum, they found matches. That way they confirmed that not only was that De Winton's mole alive, but that they had found live specimens.

Rediscovered, but still endangered

A photo of a De Wintons golden mole in the hands of one of the researchers, its tiny, flat round snout protruding from its golden fur.
De Winton's golden moles use their strong paws and their somewhat flattened heads to move through sand.Nicky Souness

Crucially, just because the researchers rediscovered these animals, doesn't meant that they are no longer endangered.

Their habitat is under constant threat from nearby diamond mining operations, Myhardt said.

Finding this endangered, and nearly extinct, species has given Mynhardt mixed feelings.

To her, it's "a story of hope for us, that it is still surviving there and we can still do something to save it and to protect it. But also, to open our eyes to just the destruction that's going on on that part of the coast."

Read the original article on Business Insider