Yesterday I spent some time describing the Namib Desert (as well as giving a brief overview of the entire nation of Namibia). I did this not just because Namibia strikes me as one of the most striking landscapes on earth, but because the harsh habitat is home to a profoundly strange mammal, Grant’s Golden Mole (Eremitalpa granti), a solitary, nocturnal predator of the Nagib Desert. Grant’s golden mole lives primarily in the Namib Desert but ranges as far north as Angola and as far south as the arid dunes of South Africa.
The golden moles are already strange animals. The name “mole” is a misnomer: golden moles are not closely related to the true moles (which are insectivores) or to the marsupial moles of Australia. Their taxonomical classification is presently unclear but they seem to be most closely related the tenrecs, a group of insect eating primitive placental mammals. Tenrecs and golden moles both have unusual dentition (a critical feature to the taxonomist) and possess cloacas like birds. It has been speculated that tenrecs and golden moles are closely related to the first placental mammals, but this may be a mistake. It is also possible that the tenrecs resemble the ancestral placental mammal of long ago whereas golden moles have evolved features which uniquely suit their desert environments.
Grant’s golden mole is a particular anomaly since it is so profoundly suited for desert living (which may have to do with the great age of the Namib Desert). Grant’s golden mole does not make permanent burrows but literally swims through the sand. The creature has powerful claws for digging which have almost some to resemble “sand flippers”. It can move swiftly underground and detect its prey (termites, scorpions, and lizards) through its profoundly acute sense of touch. Its eyes have become vestigial and are covered with both skin and fur. Because it burrows through fine particles of sand, its coat is incredibly fine and dense, its nose is a leathery wedge, and its ears have shrunk to tiny, tiny openings.
Grant’s golden mole does not build burrows so it is not known how or where it raises its young. Because water is so scarce in the Namib Desert, the golden mole does not drink: its kidneys are hyper efficient. It also does not regulate its temperature in the manner of other mammals and it is capable of dropping into a suspended state during the days (when it digs deep down into the oxygen poor sand). Grant’s golden mole requires large swaths of sandy desert for hunting. It lives only on the shifting dunes. With such a lifestyle you would think that it has escaped trouble from humankind, but you would be wrong. The giant sand mines of Namibia are eating into its habitat and it is preyed on by feral cats. In so far as we know anything about its numbers, we believe it is threatened. Even in one of the most inhospitable places, humans are making inroads.