senior field officer & specialist conservation officer, Endangered Wildlife Trust
Esther Matthew has a love for small and elusive mammals, and her curiosity drives her to find hidden species that most other people would not care to search for, like golden moles. Esther has traveled hundreds of miles up and down the western coast of South Africa chasing bulges in the sandy dunes left by golden moles. She is part of a team with South Africa Endangered Wildlife Trust that is hoping to find De Winton’s Golden Mole. It’s one of 21 species of golden mole, but it hasn’t been seen since 1936. Conservationists are unsure if De Winton’s Golden Mole is extinct, but they can’t know for sure until they’ve searched every possible beach.
Golden moles are elusive and difficult to find because of their subterranean lifestyles. They can move quickly under the sand, moving it out of the way with their powerful claws, leaving few visual signs at the surface.
“One of the hardest parts about doing golden mole research is finding the activity, finding the burrows,” says Esther. “One can spend hours and days hunting for the burrows.”
But Esther and the team find their tunnels with the help of Jessie, her scent-detection dog who is trained to find them. Based on previous expeditions, Esther has trained Jessie to find Grant’s Golden Moles. When Jessie picks up a golden mole scent, she leads the team straight to the tunnel so they can collect an eDNA sample.
Esther and her team have been on a series of expeditions to collect soil samples across beaches on South Africa’s west coast. They can test the soil for traces of DNA a golden mole has left after coming in contact with it, like skin cells. Their hope is that with a little detective work, they will find eDNA from a De Winton’s Golden Mole. That will help them pinpoint locations where the moles may still be living.
Their hundreds of samples haven’t led to a discovery yet, but Esther and the team are hoping that will change soon. And if they do find eDNA from a De Winton’s golden mole, Esther is hoping that will inspire people to protect the moles before it’s too late.