Gunning’s golden mole is perhaps one of the most enigmatic members of an ancient group of subterranean mammals that, according to fossil evidence, evolved some 40 to 16 million years ago (3) (4) (5) (6). The golden moles are named for the attractive sheen of gold, green, purple or bronze that decorates their sleek, dense, moisture resistant fur. Gunning’s golden mole is highly specialised for an underground lifestyle, with a compact, streamlined body and a wedge-shaped head that terminates in a smooth, leathery pad on the pointed muzzle that is used to work the soil. The limbs are short, yet powerful, and the forelimbs are equipped with pick-like digging claws, while the rearlimbs possess webbed digits, with short claws, for pushing the loose earth backwards. The small ears are concealed by the dense fur, and the vestigial eyes are covered in a hairy skin that thickens with age. The tail is not visible externally, although tail bones are present under the skin (2). The upperside of this mid-sized golden mole is typically a dark golden-brown tinged with a bronze green, while the underparts are a lighter colour with a golden sheen (3). Gunning’s golden mole may be further distinguished from other species by the lack of sharp crushing surfaces (talonids) on the lower cheek teeth. They also construct conspicuous meandering ridges along the surface by pushing the soil up into small, irregular-shaped mounds (3), unlike common mole-rats that throw up cone-shaped mounds at almost set intervals that radiate out from a central point (4).
There is some controversy about the evolutionary relationship of the golden-moles to other mammals (7) (8). However, recent genetic evidence suggests that they belong to a group of African mammals, known as the Afrotheria, a peculiar assemblage that also includes morphologically diverse elephants, hyraxes and sea cows, aardvark, and elephant shrews, rather than to the African mole-rats from which they gain their common name (4).
- Amblysomus gunningi.
- Male head-body length: 12.1 – 13.2 cm (3)
- Female head-body length:
[11.1 – 12.8 cm (3)]
- Male weight:
[56 – 70 g (3)]
- Female weight:
[39 – 56 g (3)]
Gunning’s golden mole biology
Like many other golden mole species, Gunning’s golden mole constructs two types of burrow systems: tunnels close to the surface that are used for foraging and deeper tunnels that are used for resting and raising young (2) (3). To tunnel through the soil, it combines powerful up-thrusts of its wedge-shaped muzzle with down-thrusts of the fore-claws, often creating ridges of soil and small, irregular mounds that are visible on the surface (3) (4). Adults are solitary and primarily nocturnal, and like other golden moles are probably territorial (3). The specific diet of Gunning’s golden mole is unknown, but all golden moles are opportunistic insectivores, with earthworms and insect larvae being the predominant prey (2) (3) (4). It may also come to the surface at night and, in particular, after heavy rains to forage amongst the leaf litter for insect prey (3) (4).
One of the primary reasons for the evolutionary success of the golden moles is a low metabolic rate and the ability to enter a state of torpor, either daily or in response to cold temperatures. This greatly reduces energy requirements, and enables golden moles to survive in areas where temperatures are extreme and food is scarce (2) (3) (4).
Gunning’s golden mole range
Gunning’s golden mole is known only from the far northern Drakensberg in Limpopo Province, South Africa, where it occurs in De Hoek, Woodbush and New Agatha Forest Reserves and rural areas around Haenertsburg near Tzaneen (1) (3) (4).
Gunning’s golden mole habitat
This species inhabits montane forest and grasslands, as well as cultivated farmland and young pine plantations, and is most abundant in moist soils near watercourses and ponds (1) (2).
Gunning’s golden mole status
Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Gunning’s golden mole threats
Gunning’s golden mole only occurs at a few locations within a very small range and, consequently, is highly vulnerable to any detrimental human-induced activities within this area. The species occurs in a number of state owned forests; however, the management of these areas does not necessarily take into consideration the management of this subterranean mammal. The potential for some of these forests to be sold to private ownership and commercial forestry operations also means that this species could become even more threatened (1) (9). Several farms in the vicinity of Magoebaskloof are earmarked for housing development that will further fragment its already restricted distribution (10).
Gunning’s golden mole conservation
There are no specific conservation measures in place for Gunning’s golden mole, but it is known to occur in the De Hoek, New Agatha and Woodbush Forest Reserves. To implement appropriate conservation measures, further research is needed to clarify the uncertainty surrounding the distribution of this species, and to further assess the relative importance of the various threats it faces. In addition, raising public awareness of the mere existence of this highly elusive species, and its important ecological role as insect-eating small mammal, is of cardinal importance for the continued survival and conservation for future generations (3) (9).
Find out more
For more information on Gunning’s golden mole and other afrotherians, see:
- Stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
- Active at night.
- Living underground, in caves or groundwater.
- A sleep-like state in which the body processes slow to a fraction of their normal rate.
- A characteristic with little or no contemporary use, but derived from one which was useful and well developed in an ancestral form.
IUCN Red List (May, 2010)
Bronner, G.N. (1995) Systematic revision of the golden mole genera Amblysomus, Chlorotalpa and Calcochloris (Insectivora: Chrysochloromorpha; Chrysochloridae). PhD Thesis, University of Natal.
Bronner, G.N. and Jenkins, P.D. (2005) Order Afrosoricida. In: Wilson, D. E. and D.M. Reeder (Eds.) Mammal Species of the World. Third Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Skinner, J.D. and Chimimba, C.T. (2005) The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion. Third Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Butler, P.M. and Hopwood, A.T. (1957) Insectivora and Chiroptera from the Miocene rocks of Kenya Colony. Fossil mammals of Africa, 13:1-35.
Seiffert, E.R., Simons, E.L., Ryan, T.M., Brown, T.M. and Attia. Y. (2007) New remains of Eocene and Oligocene Afrosoricida (Afrotheria) from Egypt, with implications for the origin(s) of afrosoricid zalambdodonty. J. Vert. Paleontol, 24: 963–972.
Murphy, W.J., Pringle, T.H, Crider, T.A, Springer, M.S. and Miller, W. (2007) Using genomic data to unravel the root of the placental mammal phylogeny. Genome Res, 17: 413-421.
Benton, M.J. and Donoghue, P.C. (2007) Paleontological evidence to date the tree of life. Mol. Biol. Evol, 24: 26-53.
IUCN/SSC Afrotheria Specialist Group (May, 2010)
Dzerefos, C. (2010) pers.comm.