Golden mole with ‘super-hearing powers’ thought to be extinct in South Africa is seen for the first time since 1936

A mole with a shimmery golden coat deemed extinct in 1936 after all traces of the species had disappeared has been rediscovered on a beach in South Africa.

Known as De Winton’s golden mole, the blind burrower with ‘super-hearing powers’  was rediscovered in Port Nolloth on the west coast of South Africa by a team of researchers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the University of Pretoria.

The tiny mammal, about the size of a hamster, spends most of its life underground and avoids humans, making it easy to miss.

This particular species had been threatened by Africa’s diamond and mineral mining activities, and when it was lost to science 86 years ago, researchers assumed it had gone extinct.

But using DNA from a sister golden mole, scientists were able to track it down with the help of a sniffer dog that led them to tunnels hidden on a beach.

A mole with a shimmery golden coat deemed extinct in 1936 after all traces of the species had disappeared has been rediscovered on a beach in South Africa

A mole with a shimmery golden coat deemed extinct in 1936 after all traces of the species had disappeared has been rediscovered on a beach in South Africa

Researchers began their hunt in 2020, using samples from De Winton’s sister species, the endangered Van Zyl’s golden mole, to see if the technique was viable.

Golden moles are native to sub-Saharan Africa, and the De Winton’s had only ever been found in the Port Nolloth area. 

After the successful results of the pilot study, the team set out in 2021 to the west coast in search of the elusive animal.

Samantha Mynhardt, a biologist at Stellenbosch University, told The Associated Press: ‘We had high hopes, but we also had our hopes crushed by a few people.

‘One De Winton’s expert told us, `You’re not going to find that mole. It´s extinct.´’

The team and the sniffer dog, a border collie named Jessie, investigated the 985-foot-long beach, searching for tiny tunnels burrowed in the sand.

The tiny mammal, about the size of a hamster, spends most of its life underground and avoids humans, making it easy to miss

The tiny mammal, about the size of a hamster, spends most of its life underground and avoids humans, making it easy to miss

This particular species had been threatened by Africa's diamond and mineral mining activities, and when it was lost to science 86 years ago, researchers assumed it had gone extinct

This particular species had been threatened by Africa’s diamond and mineral mining activities, and when it was lost to science 86 years ago, researchers assumed it had gone extinct

The dog used the sister mole’s DNA to sniff out the presumed extinct animal. 

Mynhardt writes for The Conversation that she and Jessie surveyed about one foot of beach each week until the dog picked up the scent that led to small tunnels flowing under the sand.

The team took soil samples to ensure they were made by De Winton’s mole.

The samples contained the animal’s hair, skin, cells and secretions, which the team extracted and compared with the species’ DNA.

However, the DNA did not match as it did not come from De Winton’s mole.

Although the DNA did not match any other known golden mole species, there was still not enough evidence to declare De Winton’s Golden Mole rediscovered. 

Researchers surveyed about one foot of beach each week until the dog picked up the scent that led to small tunnels flowing along the sand

Researchers surveyed about one foot of beach each week until the dog picked up the scent that led to small tunnels flowing along the sand

The team then did more morphological and genetic analysis on the golden moles on the beach.

The missing evidence was found in 2022 at the Port Nolloth Museum, with an old specimen of De Winton’s Golden Mole in its collection.

A separate team of researchers had sequenced several of its genes, allowing  EWT to compare the findings with the soil samples – and it was a match.

There are 21 species of golden moles, most of which live only in South Africa. These small creatures have an oily secretion that lubricates the fur with an iridescent sheen, giving them the name 'golden mole,' allowing them to 'swim' through the sand

There are 21 species of golden moles, most of which live only in South Africa. These small creatures have an oily secretion that lubricates the fur with an iridescent sheen, giving them the name ‘golden mole,’ allowing them to ‘swim’ through the sand

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.’

There are 21 species of golden moles, most of which live only in South Africa.

These small creatures have an oily secretion that lubricates the fur with an iridescent sheen, giving them the name ‘golden mole,’ allowing them to ‘swim’ through the sand.

The De Winton’s golden mole was one of the top 25 animals on a list of long-lost species the Re:wild non-government group drew up in 2017.

Eleven have now been discovered again.

Christina Biggs, a lost species specialist for Re:wild, praised the team’s persistence in finding the moles.

“They left no sandhill unturned, and now it’s possible to protect the areas where these threatened and rare moles live,” said Biggs.