Namibia's living desert and the survival skills of the "little five"

Most people travel to Africa to see the "big five", but there are many interesting and unique little creatures found only in the Namib Desert known as the "little five". The Namib Desert stretches 2000 kilometres along the coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. It is one of the driest places in the world, seemingly lifeless at first glance, but is actually full of flora and fauna adapted to survive in its harsh conditions.

Plants store water in their trunks or leaves, and grow hairs on leaves to stop water evaporation. To stop animals from eating their leaves they may have sharp spines or toxins. During dry periods seeds lay dormant, sometimes for years, only to germinate after the rare periods of rain.

Being a coastal desert, it is sometimes covered in dense fog in the morning. The fog basking beetle utilises this, doing a handstand to collect water condensation on its shell which eventually forms droplets that roll directly into its mouth.

A fog basking beetle

Our tour leader Chris had a knack for finding little animals. We may be driving or walking along when he would suddenly stop the car, rush over to a patch of sand, dig a little and end up with a little creature in his hand. Other times he would find small clues left behind by them and follow the tracks to find their burrows.

Chris chasing a sidewinder snake

The desert animals have developed unique skills to escape from predators. We learnt that a skink is a lizard with no neck or limbs that 'swims' below the surface of loose sand. The sand diving lizards (also known as shovel snouted lizards) dive head first into sand and can be notoriously difficult to catch. We also met a dancing white lady spider and watched it dance and cartwheel down a dune. To escape from enemies they can tumble up to 44 times a second at the astonishing speed of 1 metre per second! 

A fitzsimmons burrowing skink

2 different species of lizards
A dancing white lady spider

We also learnt about the Namaqua chameleons that can change colours to regulate their body temperature - black to absorb more heat when the temperature is low. Chris brought along a jar of crickets and we watched the chameleons as they eyed their prey then suddenly and without warning darted their tongues out and retracted with their meal. Some were very good, but others needed a bit of a helping hand, perhaps they were a bit shy to perform under the pressure and scrutiny of 20 pairs of eyes.

An overweight looking Namaqua chameleon

It was a fascinating tour where we got to meet some of Namib Desert's cheeky residents and learn about their unique adaptive processes. Out of the "little five" the only one we didn't see was the gecko, perhaps because they are mostly nocturnal. The Namib Desert is truly a unique and special place, one day I hope to be back to marvel at its beauty and hidden treasures again.

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