Scent-detection dog , Endangered Wildlife Trust
Jessie is a seven-year-old border collie and a key member of the team searching for De Winton’s Golden Mole, one of Re:wild’s top 25 most wanted lost species. Her sensitive nose, which is 10,000 times more powerful than a human’s, can pick up the scent trails of golden moles that have tunneled beneath the sandy beaches and dunes on South Africa’s western coast.
When Jessie catches a whiff of a golden mole tunnel under the sand, she lays down to mark the spot. That’s her signal that she’s found something. As a reward for using her sensitive sniffer, Jessie gets to play with her favorite toy: a tennis ball. She gets to chase and catch it every time she leads the team to an area with golden mole activity, which is her favorite activity (even more enjoyable than any dog treat).
At this stage, Jessie can already expertly identify one species of golden mole more commonly found living in western South Africa: Grant’s Golden Mole. This species was used to encourage Jessie to find golden mole activity. However, once the team finds scent for De Winton’s Golden Mole, a species that has only ever been documented once in 1936, and has never been seen since, Jessie will be retrained to find it, and ignore the other golden moles species. Conservationists are unsure if De Winton’s Golden Moles are extinct, but they don’t have to actually find one to be sure they aren’t.
Jessie’s human team takes environmental DNA (eDNA) samples of the tunnels she finds in the sand. 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.
On a De Winton’s Golden Mole expedition to Port Nolloth in summer 2021, the Endangered Wildlife Trust team found one site with a lot of golden mole activity, but Jessie showed very little interest in the tunnels that abounded on the beach. However, that was a hopeful sign for the rest of the team.
“What was interesting to us is that when we went to that beach site that had so much activity, Jessie did not show any interest,” says Esther Matthew, Jessie’s trainer and a senior field officer with Endangered Wildlife Trust. “That immediately told me the chances that it’s Grant Golden Mole, the same one we found last time, is very unlikely.”
That means it could be a De Winton’s Golden Mole, Van Zyl’s Golden mole (also a rare species) or a completely new species unknown to science. The team immediately realized that it is not a species that Jessie has been exposed to before.
“Hopefully, the eDNA reveals the presence of De Winton's at the beach site and then we can focus on training Jessie on that scent...which means in future Jessie can help us to narrow our collection sites, and we only need to collect soil samples if she indicates. Then we know it's De Winton's for example, instead of wasting time collecting from all the golden mole signs that we see,” explains Esther.