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De Winton's gold mule: "threatened" and "possibly extinct"

Photo: Nicky Souness / AFP

The De Wintons gold mole rat shovels its way through the underground in the west of South Africa with strong paws. Because an oily substance protects its iridescent fur, the blind mammal, which is usually less than a dozen centimeters long, can almost glide through the sand – almost as if it were moving in water. But no one had seen it for a long time.

This was partly due to the fact that the animals leave hardly any traces in the soil. And the fact that De Winton's gold mole-rat, which could easily be mistaken for a mole, was basically thought to be extinct. On the Red List of Threatened Species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed it as "threatened" and "possibly extinct". But the animals still exist.

Experts have used a special method to locate De Winton's gold garbage (Cryptochloris wintoni), more than 80 years after its last confirmed sighting. Scientists from the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the University of Pretoria in South Africa tracked down the species with the golden fur with the help of a sniffer dog, they report in a study published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

The Border Collie sniffed out the shy earthlings in the region around Port Nolloth, the town where the animals had once been sighted for the first time. The team of experts took soil samples from the places where the dog struck. These were later examined in the laboratory for corresponding DNA traces of the animal, as there are different types of golden mole rats.

First spotted in the lab, then with the camera lens

In fact, the experts were able to detect Cryptochloris wintoni in this way. In the meantime, the existence of the animals has also been directly proven: Two specimens were photographed on the beach in Port Nolloth. There were also signs of other populations in the area.

Even before the study began more than three years ago, the researchers were hopeful that their method would be able to track down the animals. But not all experts saw it that way. "A colleague told us, 'You won't find this gold garbage. It's extinct," said Samantha Mynhardt, one of the authors for the Associated Press.

The research team is convinced that the sequencing of so-called environmental DNA (eDNA) has great potential for monitoring biodiversity. The analysis of this mixture of genetic material, which occurs freely in nature, has become particularly important for the detection of rare, difficult-to-detect or endangered species. eDNA enters nature through small amounts of genetic material from skin cells, hair or body excretions of animals and organisms.

So far, the monitoring of species using environmental DNA has mainly been carried out in aquatic environments, according to the study. But the work shows that important information is also hidden on land, in the soil and in sediments.