A team of South African conservationists may have rediscovered a species believed to be extinct and last seen eight decades ago.

Cobus Theron, Samantha Mynhardt, JP Le Roux and Esther Matthew, along with Esther’s dog Jessie, embarked almost a year ago on a search for the critically endangered De Winton’s golden moles, which haven’t been reported seen since 1936. The conservation organization Re:wild sponsored the project through its lost species program.

The moles, whose scientific name is cryptochloris wintoni, have oil on their fur that makes them look golden and live in sand dunes in an area that has been torn up for diamond mines. Because the moles can slide through the sand without making tunnels, they are very hard to find.

The team uses a special technique to track down the golden moles: DNA-harvesting. They focus on a sandy dryland region of South Africa’s Northern Cape.

DNA is something that detectives investigating a crime might look for. It’s material that carries information about a living thing. The material is so tiny that it requires a microscope in a laboratory to examine it.

These conservation detectives were collecting what is called environmental DNA, or eDNA. This is the DNA that organisms “shed” or leave behind in their environment, in the form of skin cells, hair, blood or poop.

Each team member has their own area of expertise. Even Jessie the dog is key in the process of gathering scientific evidence.

“With the exception of Samantha, who works for the University of Pretoria, we all work for the Endangered Wildlife Trust as part of the Drylands Conservation Program,” Theron said. “I was introduced to Samantha, who was doing research on eDNA and golden moles. We shared the same interest in the species, and she became part of our team.”

The team tested eDNA techniques in a different part of South Africa before heading to Port Nolloth in the Northern Cape to look for the moles.

“Traditionally the technique we use is applied to an aquatic or water environment,” Theron explained, “but Samantha has led us in using this technique [on land].”

The most unusual team member is Jessie, a border collie.

Matthew got Jessie as a puppy. The dog had been trained to sniff out different species, but she became a specialist in picking up the scent of golden moles. Le Roux will go out and find sites where he suspects the activity of moles. Once a site has been identified, Jessie performs her task.

“When she picks up the scent of a mole, she lies down and we then collect sand from the burrow for the purposes of harvesting eDNA,” Matthew said.

The soil that was harvested from their expedition was put in a freezer in their lab at the university at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve it. The team then removed the DNA from the soil through a special process and began examining it.

“So far the eDNA we collected confirms that the golden mole activity we’ve seen in and around Port Nolloth does in fact belong to the cryptochloris,” and it could be a De Winton’s or a Van Zyl’s golden mole, a sister species that is endangered, Mynhardt said. After all the samples are analyzed, the team will be able to confirm whether the De Winton’s golden mole has been rediscovered.

“It’s not just about finding the golden mole. It is about the value of the technique and its implications for the broader field of science,” Theron said. “What I love most is that this is a story of hope. We always read about how a species has been lost, but this is a story about how something has been found.”

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