Namibia’s Namib Desert is one of the oldest on the planet, arid for at least the last 55 millions years or so. During this time a rather incredible array of life has evolved to cope with the dry conditions. And a great wealth of these adapted animals and plants are endemic, meaning they’re not found anywhere else on earth—as far as we know.
Though the country is still young, only gaining independence in 1990, Namibia is really on top of their environmental game. Reportedly the first African nation to actually write environmental protection provisions into their constitution, the protection of the region’s natural resources great and small are in the hands of the public and government. Aside from the 26 national parks that protect some 18 percent of the country’s nearly 1 million km2 of surface area, communal conservancies run by local communities pick up the slack, making a bulk of the country under some form of environmental protection.
And so far this method has seemed to work. Many of Namibia’s species great and small are still holding their own in one of the harshest environments on earth. Leading wildlife groups like WWF seriously praise the Southeastern African nation, calling the tale of the country’s revolutionary work ‘the greatest wildlife recovery story ever told.’
And that’s good news for us all because without some of the region’s unique residents the world would be just a little bit less spectacular. Especially when discussing inhabitants of the Namib Desert, whose bodies and behaviours have adjusted to handle the extremes of life in the massive sandy-ocean from which the country gains its name.
From the furry to the scaled, many limbed to the limbless, and everything in between, the Namib is home to an absolutely stunning assortment of species that don’t often make the headlines, but really should. Here are some of our favourite desert rebels, plus a natural phenomena or two, to give you a taste of the richness of Namib life.
9. Namib chameleon
Aside from being darn cute, the Namib chameleon, aka the Namaqua chameleon, Chamaeleo namaquensis, is pretty unique, even as far as geckos go. Being the only true desert-dwelling chameleon, the lizards have taken on a suite of adaptations to help them cope with the climate. For example, they have no problem clawing through in the sand for shelter and shade, even using other animal’s digs. Plus their noses excrete salt to help them maintain moisture.
Luckily, given their homeland’s dedicated protection efforts, and the species’ rather remote, inhospitable choice of habitat, Namaqua chameleons are considered of Least Concern by the IUCN. While Namibia’s environmental standards are strong, the government was criticised in 2012 for allowing scenes from Mad Max: Fury Road to be filmed in the desert. Human activities are banned from a majority of the desert, given the massive and lasting impact they can have on the landscape. Tire tracks can stick around in the dry sand for years, disrupting delicately balanced life in the topsoil.
And tiny critters don’t stand a chance against big machinery. Unfortunately the crew did some off-roading to get the best shots, tearing through pristine bits of desert habitat. Images of the tiny chameleon against a backdrop of massive trucks and equipment made their rounds on the Internet, spurring anger from environmentalist both in country and abroad.
8. Grant’s golden mole
It isn’t particularly tricky to figure out why this eyeless critter made our list. Grant’s golden moles, Eremitalpa g. namibensis, are the smallest of all golden moles, only some nine centimetres in length in comparison to aptly named giant golden moles, on average some 24 centimetres long. But this Namib desert survivor is notable from other golden moles for a few reasons, namely their nomadic nature and sand-swimming skills. Like all of their kind, Grant’s golden mole is nocturnal, only coming out at night to drift through soft sand dunes in search of their favourite staple—termites. They’ll also feast on small invertebrates they come across, like geckos and burrowing-skinks.
7. Web-footed Namib gecko
This little gecko, formally known as Palmatogecko rangei goes by a few different common names, such as the web-footed Nambid or dune gecko. Aside from being perfectly colour-coated to the desert’s rosey-hued sands, these geckos have webbed feet that provide a stabilising snow-shoe effect, making it easier to walk on shifty-sand dunes. The geckos are a lot bigger than the variety you may find in your backyard, coming in around four inches or 10 centimetres in average length. Devoid of eyelids, the geckos continuously clean their eyeballs by licking them, also taking in otherwise wasted moisture collected during rare, but critical, periods of desert fog
6. The Cartwheeling Spider
You read this species’ name right, and unlike some unfortunately frustrating instances where biologists label critters by qualities they lack, these spiders are the real deal. There are actually two different varieties of this so called ‘white-dancing lady’ insect species, but only Carparachne aureoflava is known for their acrobatics groove-moves. These white spiders live on the slip-side of dunes, spending most of their time in silk-spun dune hovels, complete with tiny trap-doors they close behind them. At night the spiders come out of their silken homes to hunt for smaller insects than themselves. When threatened these spiders hit the slopes, literally cartwheeling down sand dunes at top speeds of 44 rolls per second.
5. Welwitschia mirabilis
When it comes to plant life, you might not expect the Namib to boast great species variety. But in fact, the region hosts an amazing array of green survivors, many of which have taken on some pretty incredible adaptions to make desert life work. Probably the most famous, and unusual, Namib plant is the Welwitschia mirabilis. While it isn’t exactly nice to look at, resembling a dead heap of palm fronds and scraggly, dusty roots more than an ancient desert royalty, these epic plants can live 2,000 years or more. Once part of a widespread family of plants who ruled the landscape around 200 million years ago, all of mirabilis’ relatives have long since gone extinct. Kept alive by only two leaves, which continuously grow outwards, the plant’s water needs are met by deep taproots and a few drops of early morning desert dew. Maybe most impressively, these plants continue to thrive today, in desert terms, listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN.
4. Pebble Plants
Unlike most of the critters on this list, you’ve likely seen Lithops lesliei before in nurseries or succulent gardens. Also known as pebble or mimicry plants, stonefaces or living stones, like mirabilis these interesting desert adaptors have just two leaves that arise from deep taproots and a shallow stem. But unlike mirabilis, pebble plants are beloved by eccentric-plant lovers worldwide for their unusual stone shaped leaves. Meant to trick critters looking for a juicy snack, the plant’s leaves are decked out in desert terrain colours and markings, fused together down a central seam from which a single, golden, daisy-like flower emerges in the late summer. These desert plants live in small outcroppings, unlike most of their vegetative peers in the region. Requiring pollination from another plant, pebble plants have tiny seed-bearing fruit that open and eject seeds when it becomes wet.
3. Savanna or bush elephants
There aren’t many mammals to be found in the Namib and those that have carved out a place for themselves in the extreme habitat have done so by adopting varied and complex ways to cope. In many cases, these newly acquired adaptations make the desert species quite different from their kin in other locales, sometimes so much so that they become a separate species. While the jury’s still officially out as to whether bush elephants, native only to Mali and the northern tip of the Nambid, are indeed unique from African elephants, bush elephants have a lot of neat physiological tricks up their sleeves, enabling them to stick it out in conditions their relatives cannot. Bush elephants are generally leaner and taller than African elephants, with bigger foot pads to manage hardcore water quests and longer trunks to dig for underground reservoirs. While African elephants normally slurp back a whopping 200 litres plus of water daily, bush elephants only drink every few days. And they often walk incredible distances through the dry heat of the desert in pursuit of water, known to journey over 200 kilometres in one trek.
2. Mysterious Fairy Circles
If you love a good mystery, the Namib has its fair share of unsolved natural phenomenas that still puzzle researchers. One of the most famous examples are so called fairy circles, barren pock marks that appear periodically in the parts of the desert where a few handful of species of grasses and low-laying vegetation dominate the landscape. For a long time most theories surrounding the circles focused on two prime suspects, insects or deities. Local legends saw the markings as the footprints of descending gods. Scientists were determined termites or ants were to blame, killing off sections of vegetation to pool water during periods of precious fog. But since then we’ve learned fairy circles live in cycles, on average lasting some 41 years, growing in dry years and retracting after wet spells before eventually disappearing for good. Just to add to the mystery, almost the precisely same fairy circles appear in regions of Australia. Today, botanists have the favoured hypothesis regarding the cause of the formations, citing fierce competition for water between plants are the culprit.
1. Dune 7 and others
The Namib has some of the most extreme looking scenery in the world. Dune 7 is cited by many as the tallest sand dune in the world, some 388 metres high. There’s plenty of other peaks over 300 metres in Namib as well, like the famously dubbed 325 metre high Big Daddy in the Soussvlei region, which sees many hikers attempt its summit each year. While the conditions climbing a massive sand dune are drastically different than a typical mountain, the trek offers similar challenges. But rumour has it the open-plain view from atop these sand behemoths are in a league all of their own, offering our otherwise ground-dwelling species a new perspective on desert life.
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Eden in the Red Desert
The Namib is said to be the oldest desert in the world and is home to the highest sand dunes on Earth. Along with 3,500 species of plants, the elephants such as elephants, antelopes, lions, giraffes and rhinoceros roam freely in this rich but fragile Garden of Eden. [/geoip-content]