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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

Namib Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis) by Cowyeow from Flickr

This endearing little desert snake is Psammophis namibensis, the Namib sand snake. As you may have intuited based on the name, the snake is endemic to the Namib Desert where it lives in the vast sand seas which stretch from the Atlantic coast deep into the African continent. The snake is little—the largest males are slightly more than a meter (three feet) in length and most are even smaller than that. It is whipcord thin with delicate dust-colored stripes running horizontally along the top of its body.

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

Juvenile Namibian Sand Snake (Psammophis namibensis)

The snake looks rather spindly and delicate, but don’t let its looks fool you. It lives in a god-forsaken desert and it can move across the treacherous shifting sand with blazing speed.

Aww...poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Aww…poor little guy lives in an enormous desert

Speaking of which, how does this animal live in such lifeless devastation? Even in the dry dunes of the Namib, life thrives on our glorious planet! Like Grant’s golden mole, the sand racer eats tiny arthropods, lizards, and rodents which make their home in the sparse scrublands along the rim of the dunes or even upon the dunes themselves (the snake clearly manages to traverse this dry sea). The snake is mildly venomous (to us—the venom works better on small prey).

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Namib Naukluft National Park, Namibia. (Photo by Michael Poliza)

Once again I have been thinking about the Namib Desert–the world’s oldest desert–which calls to me for reasons I cannot fully explain. I wrote about some of the Namib’s strange animals and plants…but one thing I did not mention was its ergs. This is because I did not know what an erg is, but today I looked it up and the concept is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. An erg is a sea of wind-blown sand. This geographic feature is not unique to the Namib Desert—or indeed to planet Earth—but they do tend to be found only in vast & mighty deserts. Such a landscape is characterized by vast dunes—mountain-like sand hills composed of immense numbers of individual sand grains.

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

A sand dune in the Rub al Kali Desert

Geographers have seemingly fixed certain parameters on how large a sandbed must be to count as an erg—but I will let you look these up on your own—I think the word “sea” covers the scope of ergs. We are not talking about a child’s sandbox here.

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

Issaouane Erg, Algeria (photo from the International Space Station)

The word erg derives from an Arabic word “arq” which means dune landscape. The Rub al Kali Desert “the empty quarter” of Saudi Arabia is a vast erg—the world’s largest. There are a multitude of ergs throughout the Sahara (as seen on the map below) and they can also be found in central Asia, the middle of Australia, and the Atacama Desert (which I also really need to write about). Ergs are less common in North America than in Asia and Africa, but there a few notable examples mostly in the Sonoran Desert, but also including the unimaginatively named “Great Sand Dunes” in Colorado.

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The geology of ergs is quite fascinating as the dominant agent of erosion and change is wind rather than water. When wind activity shapes the surface of the Earth (or another planet), geologists describe the varying sorts of erosion, deposition, and weathering as “Aeolian processes” in homage to the ancient Greek god of the winds who crops up in the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Ergs do not just feature great dunes but also strange sand sculpted rocks and dry river beds.

White Sands, New Mexico

White Sands, New Mexico

As noted, ergs are not a phenomena exclusive to Earth, but can be found on other planetary bodies too (if they have silica and atmospheres). Ergs have been discovered on Mars where vast erg fields ring the polar caps. The Martian winds blow the ergs into bizarre patterns and shapes (usually I would say “otherworldly”, but that seems too pedestrian a word here). Venus also has ergs (discovered by the Magellan probe) and Cassini’s radar spotted huge parallel ergs on Saturn’s great moon Titan. Indeed ergs may be the dominant surface feature of Titan.

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

Martian Polar Dunes (photographed by the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft)

I have never been to an erg. There are none in Brooklyn (yet). However I would like to see one…although I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. They do not seem like places for life, and indeed they are among the most lifeless places on all of Earth. Ergs are beautiful but also terrible and dangerous. At least they should stay free of suburban sprawl for long enough for me to visit one (and it will probably be a very long time indeed before we cover the ergs of Titan with strip malls).

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Erg Chebbi in Morocco (Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

Map of Namibia

Map of Namibia

Our imaginary fantasy trip across Africa has taken us to some amazing places as we proceeded west along the map starting out from the micro-continent of Madagascar. Exploring the continent on the internet has really made me want to visit someday! Through photos and descriptive writing we have seen the great lakes of Malawi and Tanzania. We have lingered in the terrifying yet astonishing rainforests of the Congo. We have marveled at the unprecedented ugliness of the flags of Mozambique and Angola (sorry, flagmakers). At last we come to the ancient Namib Desert. Beyond it lie the cold waves of the Atlantic Ocean filled with nutrients thrown off from the mighty Antarctic circumpolar current. It is one of the most jarring juxtapositions on Earth—the rich freezing waters of the sea pound against the burning arid dunes.

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As you can tell, I have a fascination with the Namib. If I ever win the lottery or suddenly find a bag of gold or gain a million internet followers [crickets chirping], I will make it my business to go there at once. The Namib is the world’s oldest desert. As the continents dance all around the globe and their landscapes change from forest to ocean to plains to mountains to glaciers, the Namib has somehow stayed a wallflower and kept its dry desert climate. Its climate has been largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, which is why it is home to oddities like the welwitschia and the sandswimming golden mole.

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

A San Hunter Gatherer in Namibia

Namibia’s human history recedes into the remote mists of prehistory (humankind is after all from Africa). Various groups of people arrived in the desert in waves. The San, Damara, and Namaqua—hunter-gatherers, then herdsmen—arrived. Then the farmers of the great Bantu expansion showed up in the 14th century. Contemporary Namibian history is more tragic—since the desert land was caught between mighty colonial powers of Germany and Great Britain. Great Britain took the most useful natural harbor and Germany took the rest of Namibia—although the native Namaqua and Herero tribes rose against the nascent colonialists. From 1904 to 1907 the Germans wiped out approximately 10,000 Nama 65,000 Hereros in one of the twentieth century’s first genocides. The surviving tribespeople were relegated to concentration camps and unlivable ghettos.

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

German Colonial Powers of the Second Reich in Namibia

When the Germans lost World War I, Namibia passed to de-facto South African control. South Africa administered the territory somewhat informally (and brutally and badly) until a variety of incomprehensible UN mandates, international pressure, and a scrappy (though morally gray) guerilla independence movement forced the apartheid government of South Africa to grant the nation independence in 1990. Contemporary Namibia has abundant natural resources (which are managed with greater fairness than in neighboring states), but it has suffered greatly from the scourge of HIV. Additionally the single political party SWAPO (which evolved from the aforementioned scrappy independence fighters) is run by a somewhat opaque politburo.

 

Flag of Namibia

Flag of Namibia

The flag of Namibia is based on the flag of the national liberation movement. It was chosen by the chairman of the subcommittee for flag creation who reviewed over 800 designs before choosing the current flag. The colors have symbolism not dissimilar to other African national liberation flags. Red represents the people of Namibia and the blood they have shed to make a nation together. White is the color of unification and peace. Green represents farms, agriculture, and ecology. Blue represents the ocean and the life-giving freshwater which is so rare in the desert. The sun represents…well, the sun…the source of all energy and life (although political junkies might speculate that it also is a homage to the sun of the Kuomintang).

Angolan Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi)

Angolan Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi)

I promised to flesh out last week’s Angola post with an entry concerning the animals and culture of that West African nation. Although the greater kudu can be found in Angola, it lives in such a broad swatch of Africa, that I don’t feel I have satisfied the requirement. So today, allow me to present a very Angolan animal—the Angolan coral snake (Aspidelaps lubricus), which lives in the Namib Desert of southern Angola and on down through Namibia into South Africa. Well, actually, the Angolan coral snake is technically Aspidelaps lubricus cowlesi—a subspecies of the Cape Coral snake, but the appearance, habitat, and behavior of the animals within the same species is so similar, that I am not sure the distinction is meaningful except maybe to people onsessed over minor differences in snake coloration.

The Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus)

The Cape Coral Snake (Aspidelaps lubricus)

 

Aspidelaps lubricus perfectly illustrates how coral snakes and cobras are in the same family, the Elapidae. This little snake has coral snake stripes & a cobra hood. Adult snakes only grow to 60 cm (2 feet) in length and they spend a great deal of time underground. The snakes live in arid scrublands and along the edges of deserts where they feed on small rodents, lizards, insects, and strangely fish (if they can find them). The venom of Aspidelaps lubricus is a dangerous neurotoxin—but the snake is small with little fangs and not very aggressive. To date it has never caused any human deaths (although it still might be a mistake to pet it like a small dog or a guinea pig).

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

The Namib Desert is probably the oldest desert on Earth.  Because of the quirks of plate tectonics and geology, it has been the same hot arid landscape since West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago!  Some of the regional plants and animals of the Namib Desert have had a very long time to adapt to the baking sun and shifting sands of West Africa’s Skeleton Coast.  The sandswimming (and misnamed) golden mole is a prime example of the strange animals which live in the Namib, but an even weirder organism is the ancient monotypic plant Welwitschia mirabilis.  As the sole member of its own genus, family, and order, the plant is a bizarre evolutionary loner.  This suits the strange plant well–since some specimens exist in stupendous isolation, far from all other plants in the midst of great desolate plains.  There, single plants can live for up to two millennia or longer, in environs which would swiftly kill most other living things.  Their distinctive appearance—a huge convoluted heap of withered ancient leaves of immense length—is a sort of trademark of the Namib Desert.

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

But Welwitschia mirabilis is even stranger than its bizarre appearance and lifestyle first indicate.  It is one of the last three surviving gnetales—a division of the ancient gymnosperms (which also include conifers, cycads, and ginkgos).  Botanists are still arguing about the exact taxonomy of the gnetales, but they seem to have evolved in the Jurassic era.  As the dinosaurs came and went, as the seas rose and fell and great ice sheets carved the world and then melted, welwitschia has sat in its inhospitable corner of the globe and quietly prospered (even as all of its close relatives died away).

A young Welwitschia

A young Welwitschia

Each welwitschia has only two strap-like leaves which grow continuously over its long life.  As the desert winds rip into the plant, these leaves become shredded into different ribbons and segments, but they remain the same two leaves—growing longer and longer like some tangled Rapunzel.  The all-important taproot of the plants is just as strange—a huge shallow water collecting disk which has approximately the same radius as the length of the leaves.  Each plant has its own gender and they are pollinated by flies and desert Hemiptera (true bugs).

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Oddly enough, in our world of mass extinction, welwitschia plants are doing fine.  Although collectors have gathered some, there are still plenty left in places where people do not want to go. The plants in tumultuous Angola are better protected than those in democratic, ecologically-minded Namibia (simply because Angola’s many wars have left vast, unmapped zones of landmines where people never venture).  The welwitschia’s hermit-like asceticism is a very good strategy in our hedonistic Anthropocene world.

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Grant's Golden Mole (illustration from Michigan Science Art)

Yesterday I spent some time describing the Namib Desert (as well as giving a brief overview of the entire nation of Namibia).  I did this not just because Namibia strikes me as one of the most striking landscapes on earth, but because the harsh habitat is home to a profoundly strange mammal, Grant’s Golden Mole (Eremitalpa granti), a solitary, nocturnal predator of the Nagib Desert.  Grant’s golden mole lives primarily in the Namib Desert but ranges as far north as Angola and as far south as the arid dunes of South Africa.

The golden moles are already strange animals.  The name “mole” is a misnomer: golden moles are not closely related to the true moles (which are insectivores) or to the marsupial moles of Australia.  Their taxonomical classification is presently unclear but they seem to be most closely related the tenrecs, a group of insect eating primitive placental mammals.  Tenrecs and golden moles both have unusual dentition (a critical feature to the taxonomist) and possess cloacas like birds.  It has been speculated that tenrecs and golden moles are closely related to the first placental mammals, but this may be a mistake. It is also possible that the tenrecs resemble the ancestral placental mammal of long ago whereas golden moles have evolved features which uniquely suit their desert environments.

Van Zyl's Golden Mole (Cryptochloris zyli) photo from "Professor Paul's Guide to Mammals"

Grant’s golden mole is a particular anomaly since it is so profoundly suited for desert living (which may have to do with the great age of the Namib Desert).  Grant’s golden mole does not make permanent burrows but literally swims through the sand. The creature has powerful claws for digging which have almost some to resemble “sand flippers”.  It can move swiftly underground and detect its prey (termites, scorpions, and lizards) through its profoundly acute sense of touch.  Its eyes have become vestigial and are covered with both skin and fur.  Because it burrows through fine particles of sand, its coat is incredibly fine and dense, its nose is a leathery wedge, and its ears have shrunk to tiny, tiny openings.

Grant's Golden Mole

Grant’s golden mole does not build burrows so it is not known how or where it raises its young.  Because water is so scarce in the Namib Desert, the golden mole does not drink: its kidneys are hyper efficient.  It also does not regulate its temperature in the manner of other mammals and it is capable of dropping into a suspended state during the days (when it digs deep down into the oxygen poor sand).  Grant’s golden mole requires large swaths of sandy desert for hunting.  It lives only on the shifting dunes.  With such a lifestyle you would think that it has escaped trouble from humankind, but you would be wrong.  The giant sand mines of Namibia are eating into its habitat and it is preyed on by feral cats.  In so far as we know anything about its numbers, we believe it is threatened.  Even in one of the most inhospitable places, humans are making inroads.

Grant's Golden Mole after a Successful Hunt (Minden Pictures)

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia (photo from grandpoohbah.net)

Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand.  It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.

The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.”  A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch.  Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.

The shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen (photo by Michael Poliza)

The desert is ancient.  For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that.  West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.

The Namib Desert photographed from The Space Shuttle Columbia

Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.

The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world).  Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc.  Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).

The Navachab Open Pit Gold Mine, Erongo Region, Namibia

Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation?  The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters).  Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.

Hint: It's not the mighty African Elephant (one of my favorite creatures), but strangely enough african elephants do live in Namibia.

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