April 12, 2024

The oldest desert in the world is home to ‘fairies’, miracle plants and… Toto?

The Namib Desert is named for what it is: ‘an area where there is nothing’, in the local Nàmá language. And at first glance, the region lives up to its name, spanning approximately 1,600 kilometers (990 miles) along the west coast of Africa – spanning three countries – in some of the driest, sandiest and most inhospitable environments on Earth. .

But in fact the desert is far from empty. Not only is there life in abundance – some of it so specialized to the region that it can’t be found outside the Namib – but there is also beauty, danger, mystery and… classic rock?

A world of its own

The Namib is home to thousands of species of animals and plants – and a surprisingly high percentage of them are the only place they call home. Here, among sand dunes larger than almost any other on the planet, you can find highly adapted populations of desert elephants; dune larks, who have figured out a way to live without ever drinking water; Namibian desert beetles, whose ability to harvest water from thin air has fascinated scientists for decades; and the iconic Welwitschia mirabilisonce described by the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew as ‘without doubt the most beautiful plant ever […] and the ugliest.”

Probably the largest and oldest example of Welwitschia mirabilis (right).

Image credit: Brian John Huntley, The Namib Desert Biome. In: Ecology of Angola. Springer, Kam. (2023), CC-BY-4.0

What makes the region such a unique biome? This is not just due to the unusual environmental conditions – although that does help of course. But while the Namib is far from the only sandy, arid desert in the world, it actually has more than the competition. time: “Because [it] is one of the oldest deserts in the world, the extraordinary way in which plants, animals and even human populations have adapted and evolved to survive here is fascinating,” Chris McIntyre, managing director of Expert Africa, wrote in 2007.

Precisely How old is still a matter of debate – but we know for sure that it is at least 55 million years old: when “the earliest unequivocal evidence of desert conditions in the Namib […] is provided by extensive fossil dunes known as the Tsondab Sandstone Formation,” noted naturalist Brian John Huntley explained in 2023. To put it in context, that’s at least eight times as old as the Sahara; in fact, the Namib was a desert when its larger cousin to the north was a water monster world.

Regardless of the actual age of the desert, it is undoubtedly time enough for local flora and fauna to adapt to a climate where stable soil is scarce and annual rainfall of only 2 millimeters (0.08 in) is normal. “The extreme aridity of the Namib Desert places severe limits on the survival of most vertebrates, especially amphibians. However, many reptiles and birds have successfully adapted to life in the desert,” Huntley wrote.

“The largest bird on earth, the African ostrich, was once common on the fringes of the Namib, while two great bustards (Ruppell’s Korhaan and Ludwig’s Korhaan) can still be found on the gravel plains and intermontane grasslands of Iona,” he noted on. . “Mammal species include nomadic herds of Springbok, Gemsbok, Plains and Hartmann’s Zebras, and sedentary carnivores such as Meerkat and Aardwolf. Brown hyenas and cheetahs range widely across the desert edges.’

House of the supernatural

If local folklore is to be believed, springboks and hyenas are not the only creatures that make the Namib their home. Scattered across the landscape on the rusty sand dunes and the flat gravel plains further inland are circular patches of sand, ranging from about 1.5 meters (5 feet) in diameter to as much as 25 meters (82 feet), and completely surrounded by a single grass species. They’re called ‘fairy circles’ – and while science has yet to definitively prove how they were formed, local Himba people have long known the answer: they are footprints, left in the desert by the god Mukuru.

For others, the circles are caused by “UFOs or fairies dancing at night,” Hein Schultz, owner of the Rostock Ritz Desert Lodge, just outside the Namib-Naukluft National Park, told the BBC. But when it comes to non-supernatural explanations, no one is completely convinced either way.

An early hypothesis was that the grass in the center was poisoned by a local shrub known as Euphorbia damarana, or the Damara milk bush. The plant would die, the theory went, and the soil where it originally stood would be too toxic to support vegetation; the surrounding grass ring would survive and mark the boundary of where the shrub had encroached.

It was a nice idea, but it was wrong: In 2020, a research team continued the now decades-old work of the botanist who first proposed it, surveying the areas where he had noticed milk bushes in the 1970s. . The results were clear: “based on our detailed field observations,” concluded Stephan Getzin, researcher at the Department of Ecosystem Modeling at the University of Göttingen, “we must reject the euphorbia hypothesis.”

Aerial view of fairy circles in the Namib

Aerial view of fairy circles in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, 2017.

Two other ideas were more persistent: one required plants to arrange themselves into geometric patterns to cope with the region’s water scarcity, and the other required the builders of the circles to be demoted from fairies… to termites. “Both theories are normally presented as mutually exclusive,” noted Juan Bonachela, then a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Strathclyde, in 2017.

But that doesn’t have to be the case, he said. “Our findings harmonize both theories and find a possible explanation for them […] Fairy circles,” Bonachela explained. “Termites remove vegetation on their mounds to increase humidity, which is essential for the insects’ survival in arid environments, creating the bare disc. The vegetation around the hill uses this water accumulation to grow, and this taller vegetation forms the circle. Regular repetition of the pattern is the result of several termite colonies competing side by side.”

Even this compromise has its detractors: last month, rival gangs of ecologists published refutations of the idea that termites could be to blame. For now, it appears this is a mystery that defies scientific investigation.

The gates of hell

It’s not just fairies that are present in the Namib. Elsewhere in the desert you can find the so-called Skeleton Coast – although you might be better off if you didn’t: it’s known to the Khoisan Bushmen who live there as “the land that God created in anger”, and the views is one filled with death.

“Before we enter the 6,300 square kilometers [16,300-square-kilometer] area of ​​the protected coastline, we were required to give our names and information – otherwise we wouldn’t get out before nightfall,” documentary filmmaker Genna Martin recalled in the New York Times.

“This arid desert, which dead ends in violent Atlantic waves, has caused an untimely death for many unfortunate sailors, ships, planes and animals. Their carcasses – rusting ships, sun-bleached bones – are now visible reminders of the park’s hostile conditions,” she wrote. “It is an inhospitable place where almost nothing grows and where dangers abound, from wild curls to thick coastal fog.”

The region is so foreboding that 15th-century Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão famously named it “The Gates of Hell.” For a sailor like him, the name was apt: almost a thousand shipwrecks lie along the coast, doomed by the thick fog that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean and obscures the coast from view.

An old rusted and dilapidated oil rig (?) in the middle of the desert
If it seems like something is off Crazy Max…well, that’s because it is.

I bless the rains

Of course, if almost certain death isn’t enough to give the desert such a diabolical name, there’s always another ace up the sleeve: the drums are resounding tonight, and the wild dogs are screaming in the night as they grow restless, longing for a lonely company.

That’s right: we’re talking about Toto. “[I] wanted to pay the song the ultimate tribute and physically exhibit ‘Africa’ in Africa,” said Namibian artist Max Siedentopf. And so he did: somewhere in the Namib he installed a six-speaker sound system, linked to an MP3 player, with which the 1982 classic could be played repeatedly. Forever.

It is powered by solar batteries, “to keep Toto running in perpetuity,” he told the BBC in 2019. “Most parts of the installation have been chosen to be as sustainable as possible, but I’m sure the harsh desert environment will do the same. ultimately devouring the installation.”

When that happens, we probably won’t know. It was installed in a mysterious location, which raised an interesting philosophical question: If a semi-ironic soft rock ballad plays on loop in a 55-million-year-old desert and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

For some, the answer apparently is, “I hope not.” “Some [Namibians] I love it, and some say it’s probably the worst sound system ever,” Siedentopf admitted. “I think that’s a great compliment.”

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