Discoveries at Gobabeb

Oil exploration ups a gear as drilling programme starts in earnest
August 1, 2012
Beer Wars
August 1, 2012
Oil exploration ups a gear as drilling programme starts in earnest
August 1, 2012
Beer Wars
August 1, 2012

Text and photographs Joh Henschel

What would the world not know if the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre Gobabeb had not come into existence?


Gobabeb station

In its fifty-year history, the Research and Training Centre at Gobabeb steadily accumulated a significant body of knowledge on the desert environment. With 400 publications per decade, it is surely the most productive locally run research institution in Namibia. Many scientific discoveries are significant and have placed Gobabeb, this tiny speck, on the world map.

After a decade of surveying several locations throughout the arid west of Southern Africa between South Africa’s Namaqualand and Angola’s Iona National Park, a group of scientists came upon the ‘place of the fig tree’ on the edge of the Namib Sand Sea, and realised that their search for a suitable place for a desert research facility was over. It was 1959 and they had stumbled on Gobabeb. Several partner institutions and donors then put their heads and resources together to establish a station there, which was taken into commission in 1962.

Scientists were first amazed by the unexpectedly high biodiversity of several groups of organisms. What makes this so astonishing is that the Namib is usually very dry – in most years rainfall measures less than 12 millmetres – and its productivity is very low. A range of creatures was discovered with as yet unknown characteristics, including the remarkable golden mole, which had perfected geophones long before people even thought about them.


Gobabeb sunrise

It soon became obvious that the Namib was an ancient desert, if not the oldest in the world

Toktokkie beetles (Tenebrionidae) received a great deal of attention, perhaps because they are so conspicuous. In the Namib there are over 300 toktokkie species, over 80 around Gobabeb, far more than in any other desert in the world. Since scientists first started wondering about their remarkable specialisations, the wingless, sand-swimming, diurnally active toktokkies have frequently been used as model organisms to understand the Namib and to compare it with other deserts. Over 10% of all research papers published by Gobabeb concern toktokkies, revealing everything you always wanted to know about beetles and plenty more.

Geologists and geomorphologists were quick to follow on the heels of biologists. What was decisive for them was the dry climate of the Namib, its reduced erosion, relatively few big weather events and the corrosive atmosphere that led to conspicuous signs of weathering on small and large scale.

It soon became obvious that the Namib was an ancient desert, if not the oldest one in the world. This meant that if you wanted to understand the long-term implications of aridity, the Namib was the place to look. Furthermore, the dune systems, particularly the Great Namib Erg or Sandsea, are classic in their range of patterns, and are therefore good for testing theories, which some 20% of studies conducted over five decades have done.


Gobabeb after the rains

The dramatically high flooding of the rivers in the Namib in 1963 brought home the importance of the dynamic ephemeral rivers for this desert’s ecology, hydrology and natural resource management. Since then there has been considerable effort in understanding these rivers and how they support livelihoods – and have done for millennia, as archaeological evidence attests. Over 20% of all Gobabeb’s publications concern the Kuiseb River, making it one of the best studied rivers of its kind.

Gobabeb research also came to fame for revealing what makes desert creatures tick. How do individuals survive? What special adaptations do they have to overcome the worst characteristics of the desert, to wit: its dryness, high temperatures, poor food supply and exposure to predators? How do they make the best of the Namib’s life-support features, as in its modest sources of moisture, cool nights, and the hidden long-term food reserves? The scientists grappled with questions concerning how life, ultimately dependent on water, can exist in such a water-deprived environment. Although rain is rare, the occurrence of fog was such an obvious climatic feature that it’s no wonder that nearly 10% of Gobabeb research centred on fog.

It seems that the age of scientific discovery in the Namib has barely begun, and Gobabeb is right at the centre of it

A famous discovery was fog-basking, which is unique to the Namib, bringing iconic status to this desert and the two species of Onymacris beetles that fog-bask there. Fog-basking was actually first described for the side-winding Namib dune adder. Several plants also collect fog water and store it in their roots, for instance the pencil bush, Arthraerua leubnitzia.

Fog-basking involves special adaptations not seen or applied in this way by any other organisms. This discovery alerted scientists to look further, and they found beetle larvae and fishmoths that achieve the incredible: collecting water straight from the atmosphere, using astonishingly high osmotic pressure.

Spiders joined the ranks of Namib icons due to the research on their wheeling behaviour, long-distance navigation, tool-using activities, and skilful manipulation of heat as a weapon. Studies showed how many other heat-lovers managed to cope with high temperatures.

By monitoring the Namib continuously for decades, scientists have started to understand what some of the ultimate drivers are in a desert. Nevertheless, many fundamental questions still remain. For example, how important is desert rainfall ultimately? What about fog? How variable are populations of desert organisms? What are the consequences of moisture variability over space?

As mining activities increase in the Namib, ecological restoration increases in importance, and it becomes critical to understand how such very dry ecosystems respond to disturbances of soil and ecological processes. Only by conducting research on the specific conditions of the Namib will we know enough about the ecosystems to be able to devise restoration tools. Gobabeb is now answering this need with a dedicated effort to study topics such as the changes in desert soils after mining, and the management of scarce stocks of topsoil.

And, of course, given the burning issue of our time, and given that the Namib’s dependence on fog is such a fine indicator of climate as a driver, how will climate change affect the desert? This question is particularly important in view of the possible linkages between the Benguela Current and the dry interior of the Namib. These are some of the fundamental questions for which the researchers at Gobabeb, collaborating with local and foreign institutions, are currently trying to find answers. In fact, it seems that the age of scientific discovery in the Namib has barely begun, and Gobabeb is right in the centre of it.

This article appeared in the May’12 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *