They searched for De Winton’s golden mole in South Africa, a shiny blind animal that tunnels under the sand with its strong claws.
The scientists tried to prove that the small animal is still alive using genetic analysis ,, which was a daunting task.
To the surprise of Samantha Mynhardt a molecular biology professor at Stellenbosch University told Business Insider, “They found and temporarily captured two moles.”
“We never thought we’d find an animal alive. 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
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.
More than one species of golden mole lives in this area. They leave elevated tracks along the shoreline where they dig tunnels into the sand.
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 mole tunnel they discovered, Jessie was used to determine if the species they had in mind or if they could have found it by using a process of elimination.
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. The researchers also collected samples from and photographed some of the moles that they encountered.
Later, they purified those samples in the lab, separating the strands of DNA from the soil.
They found that the samples they collected matched a specimen of a DeWinton’s mole in a museum. 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
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.
Here, she sees it as “a story that gives us hope, because it shows we are still capable of saving and protecting it.” But also, to open our eyes to just the destruction that’s going on on that part of the coast.”
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