Desiccation: A Little Taste of ‘Dung Beetle Soap Opera’

*So I’ve been writing A LOT over the last couple of days. My next book, Dung Beetle Soap Opera hit the 90,000 word mark, which feels pretty darn great. I felt compelled to write the following chapter after waking up yesterday morning and looking in the mirror and realizing just how terrible my skin looked.  But then I got thinking and it only looks so awful because for almost a week I’ve only been drinking coffee and wine. Where was the water? Absent. That’s how important water is. Especially for your skin. So here’s the chapter y’all…

*Any bit of terrible formatting is WordPress’s fault. Not mine. And feel free to submit any feedback – better now than in a 1* Amazon review…

Great Words in the English Language: Desiccation

Do yourself a favour right now and before you read any further, grab the first squeaky clean cup or glass you see and head to your nearest tap and fill that glass to the brim with water. Take a good sip and place it down in front of you where you can see it; where you can ‘ponder’ it. That’s right. We’re going to ponder water.
When was the last time you did that? Truly ponder water, I mean.

My water right now. Durban water. #amwriting

 

Over the years, you’ve probably been exposed to some crazy facts about your glass of water. Stuff about how some of those molecules have passed through the body of a triceratops. That’s all true. They have. Note the term ‘passed through.’ That means it’s dinosaur pee. Sort of. Also, your single glass of water contains many septillions (it’s a real word) of water molecules. What’s a septillion? It’s this much… 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. So it just got much easier to believe that at least one (or a billion) of them passed through a single megalodon two million years ago.

We end up drinking velociraptor urine on a daily basis because water stays with us in a never ending cycle. From the ancient and seriously unpalatable ground water I lived on and choked down in the Kalahari, to the gorgeous fresh spring water you might stumble across on a wilderness hike in Kruger, it’s all been somewhere else and inside something else at some point. Through such processes with lovely names as percolation, transpiration, evaporation, condensation and precipitation, water constantly moves across the earth from one place to another; from one state of being to another. It’s a beautiful thing.

But its versatility isn’t what I love most about water. What I love most about it, is that it probably wasn’t always here. Did you think it was? Did you think that early earth, in all it’s general instability and lack of viable atmosphere could have held in any water? It couldn’t. And it’s not like we can just grow some new water whenever we need it. It had to come from somewhere. It’s fair to say that we don’t know for absolute certain where our water came from, but the current theories suggest it might have showed up via some pretty intense clashes with comets and asteroids, most of which are quite frozen as they zip about our solar system. Isn’t it cool to think that earth’s most generous giver of life might not be earthly at all? Look at that glass of water in front of you. It could be extraterrestrial. And even if it turns out one day that it isn’t, it’s still billions of years old. Love.

Water. It’s such a crucial element of the safari experience. And, you know, everything else. But let’s talk about how our safaris revolve around water. To begin with, we like to drive to waterholes, hoping to find animals drinking, even if it’s the middle of summer and the bush is full of water and animals are a lot less likely to be at waterholes. Yet we’re always drawn to them anyway. Because they’re magical. A safari without a nice sundowner at a waterhole just doesn’t feel like a safari at all.  

As guides, we’re taught first aid with a special emphasis on treating dehydrated tourists who have underestimated the importance of water intake. It’s a pretty easy fix. Just give them water. It just isn’t right when it’s the guide who’s suffering from dehydration, but it does happen. Especially to me. Almost everything living on our planet has evolved its own way of holding on to its sweet, sweet water. I’m not so good at it, apparently. I get dehydrated. A lot.

So let’s talk desiccation. Desiccation. It’s one of the best words in the English language. It means, ‘to remove the moisture from something.’ And unless you’re a professional mummifier, I’d hope that you don’t like to see things get desiccated. It isn’t very nice.

So how does nature take a stand against the everpresent forces of desiccation?

The answer here is going to be hugely simplified. We think there are close to ten million eukaryotic life forms on earth, and as I’ve already mentioned, every one of them has their own way of dealing with the problem. Each and every anti-desiccation method is as unique and special as the species it belongs to. 

Shall we start with bullfrogs? I’m wildly in love with the giant African bullfrog. I’ve still yet to see one in the wild, because they spend a lot of their time holed up in mud, in some sort of hibernation waiting for a little rain. It isn’t enough to simply bury themselves in mud. Mud dries and they can still desiccate. The horror. So they cleverly shed a few layers of their skin, which surrounds their froggy bodies in a parchment-like cocoon layer. The cocoon stops their water from leaking out and the giant bullfrog lives to see another rainy season. That’s the plan, anyway.

Most of the herbivores on the African savanna drop an incredibly dry ‘dropping pellet.’ The water particles that animals manage to glean from their daily grazing or browsing gets held back. Why excrete it when you can keep it for later? That’s water management. The giraffe is an expert at this and giraffe poo is often almost dry to the touch the moment it comes out. That’s what makes it such a great candidate for poo spitting contests.

Oh dear. It’s a stock image. But when my hard drive crashed I lost ALL of my safari pictures. I used to have my own photos of giraffes drinking water. These days I just have to steal them. Photographer unknown.

 

Reptiles and birds share a method of desiccation avoidance. They concentrate their urine to keep as much water as they can. That’s what their white ‘poop’ is.

Tortoises store most of the water they drink in a little sac called a bursa, where they can use it later if they need it.

There are also plenty of animals with water storage systems so advanced that they can get away with hardly drinking water at all. Gemsbok can go months without drinking because they’re adapted to get their water from the plants they eat. Same goes for some of the smaller antelopes like steenbok which are almost never observed drinking. These are animals who are built to survive a serious African drought. When the rains fail, it’s the highly water-dependent animals like zebras and wildebeest who go first.

Birds of prey are also adapted for drinking very little water. When a raptor does drink, we say it’s ‘bowsing,’ which can mean it’s not feeling its best. The English word ‘boozing’ actually comes from the old falconry term ‘bowsing.’ Cool, hey?

An animal that doesn’t store water particularly well is the elephant. Even an average sized elephant needs to drink more than a hundred liters a day. You can imagine the pressure that a resident herd puts on small waterhole. They don’t just mess up a waterhole for themselves, they mess it up for everyone else as well. As it is with their food, elephants lose their water almost as fast as they consume it. Pick up a fresh elephant dropping and you can actually squeeze the water from it. Survival experts will tell you this is a brilliant way to find water when you’re really desperate. Some even say the drinking elephant ‘poo juice’ will temporarily give you the enzymes you need to be able to digest grasses. I’m not so sure about that one. And I’ve never met anyone who professes to have tasted the poo juice. How desperate do you have to be to drink poo juice? Probably very desperate. But at least I’m giving you options.

Now I’m moving away from the word of the day, which is desiccation. But any excuse to talk about poo juice. Let’s get back on track…

How do plants avoid desiccation? Simple. In drier environments, huge leaves with big surface areas are a rarity. Instead, trees and plants are more likely to have very small or very highly compounded leaves, which leaves the plant with a smaller area where water can be lost. You’ll have seen succulent plants with bug, thick juicy leaves. Those leaves are bursting with water and the leaf cuticle holding that water in is usually waxy and waterproof. A plant in a dry area can also send most of its water underground into its roots where it’s less likely to be sucked out by the sun.

There you have it. Desiccation can usually be avoided with some forward planning and some good evolutionary tactics. We’re programmed to avoid drying out. But when you’re on safari, there’s usually so much happening that you simply forget to drink. I can get so entranced by a herd of impalas that I’ll just stare for hours with my jaw hanging. I’ll be baking under the African sun and losing water at a terrifying rate through every one of my pores, but I’ll still forget to drink. Because I’m just so darn excited. But drink! Drink and drink and drink. You need to. But not alcohol! If you’re an adult you know that alcohol just dehydrates you. I’ve also been on too many safaris (as a GUEST not a guide) where I’ve woken up on day three only to realize I’ve had nothing but wine for three days. That’s not good. Wine is a poor substitute for water, no matter what the bible says.

So drink, beautiful souls. Let’s avoid desiccation together.

Yep, I just googled water. That’s what this image is.

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