What Namibia can teach us

University of Nevada, Reno associate professor Jill Heaton's work in the southern African nation benefits students both there and here

Jill Heaton demonstrates the proper way to handle a deadly black mamba on one of her recent trips to Namibia


12/21/2016 | By: Michael  Olinger |

The Skeleton Coast of Namibia is one of the most remote deserts in Africa. "Look to the right, to the left, turn around, and all you see as far as the eye can see is sand dunes," Jill Heaton, associate professor and chair of the geography department in the College of Science, said. Most mornings, the desert is blanketed with fog.

Since 2014, Heaton has travelled to Namibia several times to conduct research on reptiles. She had come to the Skeleton Coast, a two day journey from the nearest town, to look for lizards. One morning, while waiting for the fog to clear, something unexpected found her and her colleagues. They looked up to see three lions cresting a nearby dune.

"They were not 15 yards from where we were sitting, and they just sat down," Heaton said. "The expressions I thought I read on their face was like ‘oooh mom, can we play with ‘em?'"

Heaton and her colleagues emerged from that encounter unscathed, going right back to work, despite the lion tracks they found mere feet from the tents where they slept.

In taking her reptile research from Nevada to Africa, Heaton has been afforded amazing opportunities to study reptiles unique to that setting. Namibia is home to three species of girdled lizard that are incredibly localized. One is located within a square of land only 100 by 100 kilometers. One has only ever been found on a single farm. The chance to study these rare creatures is more than enough for Heaton to brave any lions that might stand in her path.

"My work in Namibia, I think, reminded me of how important understanding the place and the landscape is to understanding the species," Heaton said. "For example, when did these three species become isolated from the rest of the girdled lizards in southern Africa? And then when did these three become isolated from one another?"

Heaton also got the opportunity to work with snakes.

"They live with the most dangerous snakes in the world," Heaton said, holding up a picture of herself handling a formidably long and deadly black mamba. "I'd rather handle a long snake than a short snake, because it is easier to hold that pointy part, the part with the fangs, it's easier to hold that further away from you."

Heaton first went to the southern African nation in 2014, when she received money from the University provost's office to travel there for two months. An additional Namibian research grant afforded her the opportunity to stay in the country for an entire year, from August 2014 to August 2015. In January she was in Namibia again on a Fulbright scholarship, and over the summer she returned once more with funding through the University of California at Riverside.

There are three places in the world with the type of climate hospitable to the species that Heaton studies. One of them is the Mojave Desert, located right in our own back yard. The other two are Australia and southern Africa. The work that Heaton has done with desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert and here at the University has acted as a stepping stone to her research in Namibia.

"Since probably about the late 1990s I've wanted to get to Namibia to expand the geography of my research, in particular working with tortoises," Heaton said.

"It's wonderful to see Jill expand her horizons," Jeff Thompson, dean of the College of Science said. "She does an incredible research in a number of areas of Nevada and her work in Namibia gives her a distinct perspective she can bring to her work here."

She brings her unique skillset from Nevada with her whenever she steps off the plane.University of Nevada, Reno associate professor Jill Heaton

"There is nobody in Namibia at the academic or agency level that is interested in reptiles," Heaton said. "They are busy with rhinos and elephants and lions and nobody is paying attention to snakes and lizards and tortoises. There's fundamental questions that don't matter where or what species you apply them to. There are questions around biogeography. Why is this species here, and it's not here? Those questions are not being asked in Namibia, and so we are bringing fundamental questions to the table when we're doing this work in Namibia."

Heaton is also interested in bringing her passion for the work she does into the classroom, both here and in Namibia. This semester she began teaching Geography 491 and Geography 701F. Both are classes in the College of Science focused on southern Africa.

"I lived in Namibia for 14 months while I was on sabbatical in 2014 and 15, and after basically a year of experiences in another geography, another landscape, another culture, another region of the world, I really wanted to translate that experience into the classroom for students," Heaton said. "It doesn't focus on my research so much as just focus on Southern Africa as a region, a physical region, a biophysical region, a climatic region, and a cultural region different than North America."

Heaton hopes to return to Namibia in the summer of 2017, and this time she wants to bring students with her.

Related Academic Program

"I have been working with a number of students on applying for student travel funds from different herpetological organizations to get my students to Namibia to continue doing field work and to work with species there," Heaton said.

Heaton is also adjunct faculty at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. She is working with faculty in Namibia to put together funds for a student to continue research in her absence. She has worked alongside Namibian students in the field, and has authored a couple papers currently in review that claim Namibian students and faculty as co-authors. Heaton considers her work with Namibian students to be one of her greatest joys.

"I mean, I loved the research there," said Heaton. "I loved the lizards, all that stuff. But I have more lasting memories from interacting with students and helping students as they move forward in their educational careers."

In January, Heaton will join colleagues in southern California to analyze research conducted on her most recent trip to Namibia. The gerrhosaurus lizard swims through sand, and Heaton would like to understand how and why. Do they move up and down in the sand column to regulate body temperature? Heaton attached thermometers and transmitters to the tails of these lizards to find out, and the new year promises to bring answers with it. Then, she will return to her second home, Namibia.

"When I arrived in Namibia last January it was, you know, a minor coming home," Heaton said. "It very much felt like I was returning to a very important place for me, and that's what home is in one sense, right? It's an important place."

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