This is the nineteenth and final article in a series by Joh Henschel of EnviroMEND about the Namib Desert. Its wonders have many forms, some of which are tiny easily overlooked creatures and processes.
Photographs by Joh Henschel
The Namib Desert is one of the great wonders of Africa, so valuable that it is the very antithesis of floccinaucinihilipilification. The Namib’s Pandora box glitters with gems of stories, some concerning amazing ways how creatures tap into water in the driest of places. Cyanobacteria, tiny blue-green algae, which carpet the gravel plains, flip insignificance around.
It turns out that they are Oma Stroma’s (stromatolite) great-grandchildren, with a pedigree going back close to the dawn of life. The Namib’s inventions include wheels, Velcro, lasso, and stone tools, used by spiders since time immemorial.
The wheel allows spiders to stay ahead of pompilid wasps, which are such determined, energetic spider hunters. Determination is exactly what fog-basking beetles need to climb up clammy dunes on cold foggy nights. The reward is worth it: water to rehydrate and balance their diet of dry muesli.
The ancient Welwitschia is an ark, sheltering myriads of little creatures. The spoor spider has no need for shady shelter, for it has a nifty Velcro trick up its silken sleeve. This enables it to snare bullish ants and fry them on its solar pan.
Long periods of dry heat don’t put off the Namib’s fairy shrimps, rubber frogs and other aquatic creatures that wait for years until one day the unthinkable happens: it rains. Pools briefly bubble with life, but the water soon evaporates, leaving dust pans harbouring dry-baked cocoons of life. These wait for the elixir of life to someday come dropping from the sky again.
Never waiting, but running to get, are plana toktokkies. They make their own water by sprinting from sandy snackwich to snackwich, so fast that the wind of the run cools. Indeed, Plana ran gold at the Little Olympics in the Namib Desert of Namibia (LONDON) 2012, at which many Little Things became Big Champions in diverse events.
The most remarkable feature of the gold-medallist in sand-swimming, the Golden Mole, is its geophone with which it detects the tiniest movements of creatures in the sand. Little can escape this combination until the mole is sated and goes into cool torpor. Flamingos had brought the Olympic flames from afar, from Etosha and Makgadikgadi Pans to Walvis Bay, energetically flapping all night, flying low so as to navigate by the dim lines of riverbeds and roads.
The essence of the Namib was unforgettably grasped on canvas by Christine Marais, whose paintings immortalise this desert’s beauty. The Meroles lizard is full of himself for being part of this beauty.
Though dandy, he is no slouch at being dashing predator while escaping hungry enemies. Overcoming enemies can be quite a feat for social spiders. It takes teamwork to do diligent spinning for trees to become festooned with silk, which stops ant raids and gives trees a festive flair.
Not to forget that there’s something grand below the sand in our land. The wonderland inside the dunes is sadly tempered when rash off-road drivers bash over dunes and crush what’s inside. Instead, we should applaud the humble creatures that withstand so many trials living in sand with fascinating styles.
Quite stylish is the dancing white lady spider gent, who tap-dances on dunes on moonless nights. The suitor taps that he would suit her, and so he does. As he retreats, it dawns. The dramatic change that every Namib dawn brings about never loses its primordial edge. May the Namib never run out of its Big Stories about Little Things.
This article was originally published in the April 2013 Flamingo magazine.