Treasures of the Namib


Picture credit Tony Camacho / Science Photo Library

The Namib Desert harbours some extraordinary creatures that have developed fascinating adaptations to cope with the challenges of desert life. We give you seven to look out for

Desert lion
Probably the single biggest difference between the desert lion of north-west Namibia and anywhere else is their use of space. They utilise home ranges 10 times bigger than any others, criss-crossing the entire northern Namib desert. They take their chances, hunting opportunistically, feeding on beached whales and coastal seabirds along the Skeleton Coast, while further inland, they specialise in taking down huge adult giraffe that reside in the ephemeral desert rivers. Yet, these vast movements that are necessary for survival in the desert have a devastating downside as they bring them into contact with humans and their livestock. Unfortunately, the end result is often at the expense of the lion.
By Conrad Brain

Palmato gecko
The palmato, or web-footed, gecko gets most of its water requirements from its diet of insects, mainly beetles and their larvae, termites and crickets. But it also supplements this supply by allowing the fog to condense on its large eyes, then licking them with its long tongue. This also helps keep the eyes clean. The gecko is mostly nocturnal, and has an almost transparent skin through which its blood vessels are visible, producing a variety of colours and patterns in different individuals. When alarmed, it can run at considerable speed, holding its body high above the surface of the sand, and leaving distinct fig-like imprints from its webbed feet.
By Ann and Steve Toon

Desert elephant
The complex communication system between elephant and the extensive use of long-range infrasonic calls appear to be pivotal for these animals’ survival. Using lower atmospheric conditions, elephant can bounce their calls off inversion layers in the atmosphere and in this way can communicate with each other over vast distances. This allows herds to co-ordinate movements to areas of food and sporadic water availability. The other major factor is their ability to pass on knowledge down the generations about paths across the desert, the location of extremely isolated waterholes and the seasonal availability of specific food.
By Conrad Brain

Namaqua chameleon
Namaqua chameleons grow up to 30cm long and are among the fastest of their kind. Their eyes move independently, allowing them to see in both directions at once when hunting insects. When they spot prey, both eyes fix on the target so they can accurately judge the distance to fire out their long tongue. The chameleon’s body colour changes according to its mood, as well as to regulate its body temperature by reflecting or absorbing heat. So sophisticated is this adaptation that one side of an individual will sometimes be black and the other pale grey. When angry or nervous the chameleon turns black all over. Namaqua chameleons will also regulate their body temperature by digging holes in the sand to shelter in.
By Ann and Steve Toon

Peringuey’s adder
The Peringuey’s adder, or sidewinder, is one of the smallest adders in the world, reaching no more than 32cm long. Its characteristic sidewinding movement keeps the bulk of its body off hot sand at any given moment, to avoid overheating. The adder has eyes on the top of its flattened head, which allows it to burrow into the sand, leaving only the eyes and occasionally the tip of the tail above ground. Some have black-tipped tails, which they flick to lure unsuspecting lizards to within striking range.
By Ann and Steve Toon
Dancing white lady spider
One of the two species of dancing white lady spider endemic to the Namib escapes parasitic wasps and predators such as geckos by rolling into a ball and cartwheeling down dunes at high speed. It hunts at night, patrolling the dune slip face for insects, and rests up in a burrow made out of silk and sealed with a silk trap door. It’s been estimated that a spider will shift up to 80,000 times its own body weight of sand when excavating a burrow. It’s during this process that the spider is most vulnerable to attack by pompilid wasps, which will sting and paralyse the spider before laying their eggs in its body.
By Ann and Steve Toon
Black rhino
The black rhino of Namibia’s north-west is the only free roaming population of rhino remaining on earth. Their survival in this harsh arid landscape is largely dependent on their acquired ability to consume plants that are highly toxic to most other animals. Euphorbia damarana and virosa are staples of the rhino and deadly to almost everything else. There also appears to be a complex succession of information transfer between parents and offspring regarding the location of feeding areas and water. It is increasingly evident that it is mainly behavioural adaptations in favour of physiological ones that are critical for their survival.
By Conrad Brain