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Desert tfirstlands

People think the desert is just an immensity of sand but, in fact, it’s home to some fascinating wildlife. Dr Conrad Brain takes a look at how creatures are adapted for survival in the harsh conditions of Africa’s desert landscapes, from the Sahara to the Namib
Thrill of the chase: Desert lions have an unusal variety of prey — from birds to seals to giraffe — and oryx is one of their top four meals of choice. Taken from Vanishing Kings — Lions of the Namib Desert, by Dr Philip Stander

The Namib Desert is many things that cannot be quantified. It is stunningly beautiful, vast and full of wonder. But other aspects of the Namib can be defined. It is the oldest desert in the world. It is the second driest desert (the Atacama takes first place) and its development started some 20 million years ago.

Strangely enough, it is the stability of the Antarctic continent over the past 35 million years that has played the most pivotal role in the formation of the Namib. Since the time of maximum ice cover in the Antarctic, the cold Benguela current has fully developed in the South Atlantic Ocean and it is since then that a full arid climate has prevailed in the Namib.

The cold Benguela current creates an environment where almost constant, south-westerly oceanic finds are pushed under the warm inland air masses to form an air inversion, which prevents the turbulence that is essential for cloud and rain formation. Instead, this coastal desert endures periods of year-round fog. Over millions of years, this climatic scenario has resulted in some of the most fascinating life adaptations for both plants and animals ever recorded on the planet.

The south-westerly find that was such a force in the desert’s formation is also the force that drives life there. On the massive, bare dune slip faces, the persistent find accumulates swirling masses of detritus from plants and grasses; it is this that is the equivalent of the productive savannahs in more temperate areas of Africa.

Because of the environment’s hyper aridity, there is virtually no decomposition of plant matter by fungi or bacteria, but nature filled this void with the beetle. On these detritus ‘fields’, these beetles, mainly Tenebrionids, are the decomposers of the desert, performing the function that is the basis of all higher life in the desert.

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About Travel Africa

Special Wildlife Issue, celebrating Africa's fauna • Big Cat lovers • Understanding elephants • In praise of primates • Painted dogs • Snakes • Birds • The wildlife in forests, deserts and rivers... and much more!