Skeleton Coast: Namibia’s strange desert dwellers

By Gaia Vince 2 June 2010
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The desert species of Namibia have developed unique means to inhabit one of the planet’s hottest and driest environments.

NAMIBIA IS THE SECOND most sparsely populated country in the world after Mongolia. This is perhaps unsurprising, as the African nation consists almost entirely of the world’s largest desert, the Namib. We’ve headed to the emptiest place in this empty country: the Skeleton Coast.

It’s a bleak, desolate coast – known to the bushman as ‘The land god made in anger’ and the Portuguese as ‘The gates of hell’ — and it’s seen its fair share of human deaths. Many poor souls that landed on its murderous shores perished through lack of water. But oases do exist and the fog that hangs over the sand dunes and gravel plains is the breath of live for everything that clings to existence here. Lichens colonise the most inhospitable-looking rocks and sands, providing a host for other animals and plants, including the utterly bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis, a dwarf ‘tree’ with just two continuously growing, ribbon-like leaves. These plants can live for several thousand years, producing small pine cones.

THE DESERT IS FAR from dead, we discover, when we accompany local naturalist Tommy Collard on a journey through the dunes outside Swakopmund. The Namib desert, stretching 2000 km, is around 80 million years old, which means that the strange and wonderful creatures that inhabit its continually moving sands have had plenty of time to adapt to the landscape, evolving remarkable ways of inhabiting one of the planet’s hottest and driest environments.

We find Perinquey’s adder (Bitis Perinqueyi), a mesmerising snake that uses its unique sidewinding motion to move across the fluidic substrate quickly and with minimal contact to the hot sands. And the white lady spider (Carparachne aureoflava) that lives beneath a small trapdoor in a complicated web and flips on its side, cartwheeling at 44 turns per second (covering 1 m per second) across the dunes to escape predators.

A dancing, sand-diving lizard with two bladders (one for water, one for urine) allows us to examine him. From studying this lizard, researchers discovered that animals can munch dead dry plants and internally combust them to produce metabolytes like sugar plus enough water molecules to enable it to survive. But nobody understands how the lizard is able to withdraw water from its bloodstream without the thickened blood clotting — yet it can.

WE CATCH A SMALL black tenebrionid beetles (Onymacris plana), which harvests the morning fog by doing a headstand into the wind, so that tiny droplets condense onto its waxy fused wing-cases and roll down the carapace into its mouth. It’s a particular favourite of the superbly camouflaged Namaqua chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis), which changes its colour and hunts prey in a surprisingly quick dash across the sand, catching victims in a flick of its unfurling tongue.

My favourite, though, is the rainbow-coloured transparent palmato gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) that burrows into the sand with webbed ‘spade’-feet and licks dew off its own large eyeballs  (see a video here of one licking its eyeball).

Tracking these small, hidden creatures involves learning to recognise the tell-tale marks they leave on the sand surface, such as the small perfect circle dip left by a palmato gecko above its burrow, or the slightly darker patch at the ‘door’ of a silk-lined spider burrow.

The desert here is spectacular. Yellow quartz mixing with black magnetite that throws a lost seaman’s compass off wack, pink rubylyte and minerals of every other hue. The dunes are constantly moving — large dunes here travel a couple of metres a year; small ones can travel more than a kilometre in a year. This desert originated in central South Africa, travelling here via the Orange River to the ocean where it is blown onto the Namib’s coast in a continual process that is gradually covering the country in sand.

Most amazingly, though, Tommy drives us over the sand to a point where the acoustics is so perfect that we can hear the haunting whale song of the dunes calling out around us. It’s an awesome sound.

Gaia Vince is an Australian journalist who is travelling around the world reporting on the effects of climate change and sending regular dispatches to Australian Geographic. She writes for the BBC, New Scientist and The Guardian. Find her blog at


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