Golden mole thought extinct is spotted in South Africa for first time in 80 years

A De Winton's golden mole, found on the west coast of South Africa (Nicky Souness/re:Wild via AP)
A De Winton's golden mole, found on the west coast of South Africa (Nicky Souness/re:Wild via AP)

A golden mole long thought to be extinct has been spotted by researchers in South Africa for the first time in more than 80 years.

The De Winton's golden mole - a small, blind burrower with "super-hearing powers" - has an iridescent golden coat and the ability to "swim" through sand dunes.

It had been a species "lost to science" since 1936.

But a team of researchers were delighted to find the insect-eating creature still alive, on a beach in Port Nolloth on the west coast of South Africa.

The researchers, from the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the University of Pretoria, discovered a golden mole in 2021, having tracked it through tunnels with the help of a sniffer dog.

But because there are 21 species of golden moles and some look very similar, the team needed more information to be certain it was a De Winton's.

They took environmental DNA samples — the DNA animals leave behind in skin cells, hair and bodily excretions — but had to wait until 2022 before a De Winton's DNA sample from decades ago was made available by a South African museum to compare. The DNA sequences were a match.

The team's research and findings were peer reviewed and published last week.

"We had high hopes, but we also had our hopes crushed by a few people," one of the researchers, Samantha Mynhardt, told The Associated Press. "One De Winton's expert told us, 'you're not going to find that mole. It's extinct."'

The process took three years from the researchers' first trip to the west coast of South Africa to start searching for the mole, which was known to rarely leave signs of its tunnels, the researchers said. Golden moles are native to sub-Saharan Africa and the De Winton's had only ever been found in the Port Nolloth area.

Two De Winton's golden moles have now been confirmed and photographed in Port Nolloth, Mynhardt said, while the research team has found signs of other populations in the area since 2021.

"It was a very exciting project with many challenges," said Esther Matthew, senior field officer with the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

"Luckily we had a fantastic team full of enthusiasm and innovative ideas, which is exactly what you need when you have to survey up to 18 kilometers (11 miles) of dune habitat in a day."

The De Winton's golden mole was on a "most wanted lost species" list compiled by the Re:wild conservation group.

Others on the list that have been rediscovered include a salamander that was found in Guatemala in 2017, 42 years after its last sighting, and an elephant shrew called the Somali sengi seen in Djibouti in 2019, its first recorded sighting since 1968.