Adapt and Survive: Reaching the Pinnacle of Specialisation

Published on: 22/04/2024


Photo title: Gemsbok


Photo Credits: Daniel Crous

To journey into the Kalahari is to journey into one of the very few unsullied regions left on earth. A place where the laws of nature still reign supreme. An utterly flat expanse dominated by a vast and ever-changing sky. Beautifully raw, peaceful, and wild. The unforgiving terrain demands her inhabitants reach the pinnacle of specialisation. Exhibiting ingenious behaviours and clever adaptations that enable them to survive the relentless heat and dry environment. Many of these creatures are dazzling and fascinating in equal measure. Some are so secretive that they are seldom seen.

This arid interior is the realm of the gemsbok. A large antelope of the Oryx family whose statuesque beauty is matched by its desert adaptions. Both male and female carry long rapier sharp horns which provide lethal defence against predators, even lions. Their glossy silver coat helps to reflect the harsh sun. They have one of the most remarkable physical adaptions of any large mammal on earth, enabling them to conserve water. Able to tolerate temperatures that would kill other mammals, their bodies simply increase in temperature rather than sweating or panting. Blood bound for the brain is diverted via a network of veins in the nasal passage providing cooler blood to the brain.

By contrast, eland have evolved to be highly mobile, ranging over huge areas in their search for food and moisture. Switching their diet as conditions demand. Gemsbok however, are so well adapted to the environment, they require a relatively small area to meet their survival needs even in times of drought. The benefit of a more limited but familiar range where they know exactly how to fulfil their requirements.


Photo title: Brown Hyena


Photo Credits: Wikimedia commons

Of course, with healthy populations of prey species come predators. Many of these rest in the heat of the day and emerge at night to take advantage of cooler hunting and foraging conditions. None of the Kalahari carnivores has desert adaptions to rival the brown hyena. Long brown fur is certainly unexpected in this hot habitat but probably a necessity in the cold cloudless night skies. Particularly in winter where temperatures can drop below freezing. Feeding mainly on the kills of other predators, they use their strong jaws to break open bones and extract the bone marrow. Bones often being all that remains of a scavenged kill. Brown hyenas follow the movements of lions and leopard. They scan the skies for wheeling vultures and zero in on kills by employing their incredible sense of smell. Forced into a life of solitude, their lonely wanderings are an adaption to desert life. However, they remain social creatures with ten or more sharing a home range often engaging in elaborate greeting rituals whenever their paths cross on feeding trips. A varied menu of insects, rodents, termites and tubers only adds to their resilience. When an abundant food source is discovered, such as a nest of ostrich eggs, they will store these for leaner times. A remarkable behavioural adaptation to this arid wilderness and certainly one of the very few carnivores to cache food in this manner.

Lions further north in the wetland of the Okavango Delta are often seen hunting during the day but here they are generally nocturnal hunters. Famously social cats, the familiar pride structure often breaks down in the dry season. Conditions which can be particularly hard on cubs and juveniles. Mortality is very high. As their prey scatters in the dry months, lions, like the brown hyena will turn to smaller prey such as rodents, porcupines and birds. In the Kalahari up to 50% of kills can be smaller animals compared to only 1% for a Serengeti lion.

Every creature here has its own unique way of surviving in this highly challenging terrain. Mammals, birds, reptiles and insects who have learned and adapted over millennia to eke out a precarious existence in an unforgiving land.

Daniel Crous

Daniel Crous

Daniel Crous has been lucky enough to call Botswana home for his entire life. His folks ran safari camps in the 80's and his early childhood was spent in the heart of the Okavango Delta. Life outdoors has always been his calling, safaris in Botswana are one of the purest forms of such a life. His Dad handed him his old film camera when he was about 12, documenting the wilderness around him has grown from passion to profession. He is equally passionate about the conservation of the land we live in and all of its creatures, including its people. He now takes extreme pleasure in leading others to some of the incredible experiences available here.

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