Techniques to track lost species

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The hope of finding the De Winton’s golden mole is almost as transient as the mist that passes through the dunes of the West Coast. This particular mole, last seen in 1937, is considered a lost species (see www.lostspecies.org).

The prospect of finding this little creature and proving its existence is an appealing proposition but does not come without significant challenges.

However, you can be sure that my teammates in the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Drylands Conservation Programme are up for the challenge. They’ll be teaming up with the University of Pretoria to use new approaches and innovative technologies to attempt to find out if this species still inhabits the dunes of the West Coast.

The De Winton’s golden mole is listed as Critically Endangered as its dune habitat in the region of Port Nolloth is under severe pressure from mining activities.

Information on the species is limited and it is easily confused with Grant’s golden mole, which lives in similar environments on the West Coast. Dune-dwelling moles do not leave tunnels, making them difficult to locate or trap, and we need to think outside the box if we want to find these special creatures.

In November 2019, Global Wildlife Conservation, through their Lost Species expedition project, made a small grant available to the EWT to investigate new approaches for finding the species.

The Drylands Conservation Programme will be working with Samantha Mynhart from the University of Pretoria, and will pilot the use of an Environmental DNA (E-DNA) technique to sift through sand samples collected in the dunes near Port Nolloth. If successful, E-DNA techniques will allow the team to detect skin cells shed by the moles as they move through the sand.

This will enable them to confirm the presence of any of the golden mole species occurring there.
Work begins in March 2020 when the team will head to the West Coast to collect samples for analysis – I’m hoping to tag along.

If the results are positive, not only might we rediscover the species, but we will narrow down the search area for future conservation actions.
Watch this space!

Written by the Endangered Wildlife Trust
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