Moles and Molecular Progress

Trip Start May 25, 2005
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Flag of South Africa  ,
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

After a week of field work, life can be hard but so, so great. We were on the brink of a world first!

The story begins with an endangered species, the Juliana Golden Mole. A tiny little mole with no eyes that likes sandy soil in South Africa. Unfortunately, they are a secretive bunch, so when the population began to decline a while ago, no one knew why, or more importantly, how to help the situation improve.

Enter Craig and Trina - two dedicated researchers who like nothing more than sitting perfectly still for hours, ready to pounce at the first sign of 'mole activity'. Remarkably, after 11 days and nights of perching near its tunnels, they were still sufficiently awake to catch the thing when it stuck it's head above the ground.

And if you like remarkable stories, here are few more factors that make this tale almost good enough for Hollywood to start sniffing around!

First of all, to catch the mole was pretty incredible. It was then driven 60km to the nearest veterinary experts who anesthetised it (successfully!) and inserted a tiny radio-tranmsitter, the size of a small watch battery, into it's rib cavity. This involved shaving the belly of the mole, making a hole, inserting the object, sewing up the muscle tissue and then stitching the fur into place. The mole was then brought around from it's sleep and immediately began to scamper around.

The next twenty-four hours were a critical time. Those of us who had heard the news in Pretoria sat eagerly around our cell phones. Would it make it through the night? How does a mole feel after surgery? Would it simply die before it could be released? Had all this been in vain?

The whole purpose of the exercise was to obtain data on the daily patterns of the Golden Mole species. No one has documented what they do and when, how big their range is and where they like to hang out. So if the mole died before it was released and resumed it's normal activity, we would be no closer to knowing the habits of the species. In short, the situation would remain critical!

'I've just heard from Craig. It made it through the night, and they are releasing it soon.'

"Wow! What a tough little bugger!"

So it had survived the surgery and made it back underground into it's tunnel system. Now all we had to do was keep our fingers crossed that it would survive back in the wild; that it would be able to forage and build tunnels. Twelve hours later and the news improved - the mole was moving around and had begun to thermo-regulate (keep it's body temperature constant). The fun could begin!

And so the call went out: 'Wanted - people to help track the Golden Mole! We need your help - on the hour, every hour!'

That was all we needed to hear. By 8am the next morning we were on the road heading to Nylsvley Nature Reserve. It was so exciting.

By the time we arrived, Craig, Trina and Bernard had been on duty for days. They really needed a break. The excitement and stress of working with wild animals is what zoologists live for, but the lack of sleep can have a major effect on your ability to function normally! Time speeds up and slows down without warning. Temperature changes of less than two degrees can seem extreme. Sometimes you just need to sleep!

So it was our turn to take over for a while. As we stood in the middle of a beautiful reserve holding the radio aerial aloft, listening for the tell-tale 'beep. beep. beep.' of the tracking device, I couldn't stop smiling. This was a dream come true. The chance to help out on such important and well constructed field work was something I had been striving for all my life, and something that I wouldn't swop for the world. It was good to know that we would be here for a few while.

beep.
beep.
bEep.
bEEp.
bEEP.
BEEP
BEEP!
BEEP!!
BEEEPP!!!!

The signal was getting stronger. We were closing in. Time to use the more sensitive receiver. Our ears were focused.

'There!'
'Go back'
'Stop!'
'Go back'

(pause. listen)

BEEEPPPPP!!!!!!

We had it. Pinpointed to a spot just below out feet, the tiny little mole was in range.
Being careful not to step on any tunnels (that are very hard to see as they are mostly underground) we stopped to record the number of 'beeps' per minute. This could be correlated to body temperature and give us an idea of its activity patterns in relation to its body temperature, soil temperature and the ambient air temperature.

It was fantastic to know that we were learning facts about the mole's activity that had never before been documented.

One hour later: we walked back to the same spot, aerial and transmitter in hand. It was getting hot now and the birds and insects were in full song. The ticks were hanging off the tall grass, trying to hitch a ride to feast on our flesh as we went by. The kudu were grazing in the distance. It was a perfect world.

Receiver on. (Nothing)
Aerial survey. (Nothing)

'Blimey. Where has the critter gone?'
This was scary. Was it dead? Had the transmitter failed? Was it too far underground?

So we called on our experts, Caroline and Johann.
'Listen carefully' she said, moving the receiver around closer to the ground.
'Can you hear that very very faint beat?'

And sure enough, the slightest rhythm began to push its way through the noise of the static. We had it. Buried deep inside a clump of grass, it was taking refuge from the beating sun. What a sensible chap. His temperature had gone up, so he had retreated to a cooler spot.

It was wonderful - science in action, and the mole in the shade.

And so it continued. Helpers came and went, we sat in the baking heat and the mossie-filled night, drinking coffee, staying awake, chatting, and trapessing through the wilderness by the light of the moon to check the mole's location every hour.

I think it was probably one the highlights of my time here so far. The company was great and the excitement at a consistent peak. This is what life is really about for me. And the fact that we could hear a leopard in the distance one evening made the time I spent in Nylsvley really twinkle.

Thank you Craig and Trina for letting me come along and share in the experience.

And thank you moley for giving me a rare insight into your lovely underground life.
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