BIG STORIES about little things – Namib Desert beetle

The roadside pod ladies
August 6, 2012
Words – an exhibition by FNCC’s photography students
August 6, 2012
The roadside pod ladies
August 6, 2012
Words – an exhibition by FNCC’s photography students
August 6, 2012

This is the fifth in a series by Joh Henschel about the Namib Desert. Its wonders have many forms, some of which are tiny, easily overlooked creatures and processes such as colledting fog moisture.

Photographs by Joh Henschel

Isn’t it wonderful to sit on a dune, enjoy the sunset, and appreciate your drink?

Let me tell you how precious water is. Oh, by the way, if you’re wondering who is talking to you, it’s me, Onymacris unguicularis, the shiny black beetle at your feet. Although I may only be the size of your small toe, I can stand tall. In fact, that is how I get water.

Last night I swam a few centimetres down into the dune to embed myself cosily among loose grains of sand. By breathing very slowly, sufficient oxygen filtered through, and I drifted off to sleep. Suddenly, as I detected moisture lacing the air I breathed, my alarm went off. That could only mean fog. I was thirsty, and fog contains so much water.

beetle desert sand

I swam through the sand to its surface and confirmed that, indeed, there was fog.

But, ugh, it was three in the morning and there was a cold clammy breeze, brrr. I realised that I was not on top of the dune, where it gets the wettest.

If I wanted to drink, the top was where I needed to be. Even though I was frozen stiff, I stumbled upwards, every step a strain, until I reached the top and caught the fog-laden wind. Several of my kin had already arrived and were in business. I, too, straightened my back legs as much as I could and lowered my head, to lift my body up into the air and fog-bask. I stood tall with the dune as head-dress and my nether-end in the clouds.

Windblown droplets of fog bumped into me and ran down my teflon-smooth sides to my sipping mouth. I took deep gulps of precious water until I had my fill. At the earliest glimmer of dawn, I retreated back down into the warm dune sand to rehydrate in peace. The egg I carried swelled with water.

Fog basking beetle. MARK MOFFETT: MINDEN PICTURES:National Geographic Stock

Fog basking beetle. MARK MOFFETT: MINDEN PICTURES: National Geographic Stock

As the day progressed, the baking warmth of the sun penetrated the sand and woke me. Following the custom of first peeping cautiously through the top layer of sand, I confirmed that the coast was clear to come out into the open. Okay, now where was the food?

I was looking for desert muesli, a concoction of Bushman grass seeds, other odd seed titbits that had parachuted in from the distant Kalahari with easterly winds, withered flowers from rainfall long past, and dried pieces of insect biltong. The muesli is widely scattered and required major effort and persistence to find.

The hotter it became, the better was my form. I zipped up and down the dune, and although this burnt a lot of calories, I managed to consume even more. A persistent male managed to box rivals off my back, and once I had finished feeding, he coaxed me down into the privacy of the sandy depths to fertilise my egg.

When I emerged in the late afternoon, I was ready to lay the egg. And that is how you come to see me here, digging a shallow pit to bury my one nurtured egg. The baby larva will fend for itself. If all goes well, I will produce another egg tomorrow. But now I must hurry, because it’s nearly time for hungry predators of the night to emerge. It was good meeting you on top of the world. Appreciate your drink, appreciate the desert.

This article was originally published in the January 2011 Flamingo magazine (Air Namibia's in-flight magazine). 

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