Secrets Behind the Namibian Fairy Circles May Finally Be Solved
Hundreds of strange circular patches of ground where nothing grows can be found amongst the thick grass of the vast Namib desert. These bald spots apparently exist, and sometimes grow, for years before suddenly disappearing – leading to fanciful tales of fairies, UFOs, toxic dragon breath, and footprints left by a god. But there are also ecological explanations for this bizarre phenomenon – insects and plants competing for resources.
After years of debate over the causes of the bizarre patches of barren land, a new study published in the journal Nature suggests that it takes the perfect combination of two ecological forces to make the strange marks happen.
New Historian reports that ecologists used computer simulations to explain the circles’ existence. They combined the effects of groups of root-eating sand termites competing underground for resources with the idea of self-organizing plants competing above ground for water.
A fairy circle in the Namib Desert. Source: Jen Guyton
These are both popular theories that have been suggested before. The termite hypothesis made headlines in 2013 and the plants suggestion was embraced by the media in 2014. But neither has been able to explain the phenomenon of the “fairy circles” on its own.
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However, the combination presented in the simulations created by Corina Tarnita of Princeton University and her team, suggests that the two processes together create patterns that mimic at least some of those found in the Namib desert. As Juan A. Bonachela, an assistant professor from the University of Strathclyde and a co-author of the new study told Gizmodo:
“Only by considering the interaction between both termites and vegetation self-organization can we obtain such a comprehensive description of all the main properties reported for Fairy Circles. We offer a plausible explanation for how these and other regular vegetation patterns emerge, which [includes] what were thought to be mutually exclusive explanations for the system.”
Fairy circles can measure anywhere from 6 to 115 feet (1.83 -35 meters) in diameter. A study by Walter R. Tschinkel in 2012 found that the “lifespan” of small circles averages about 24 years, and larger ones exist for 43–75 years. They are mostly found on the eastern edge of the Namib Desert of southwestern Africa. They are easy to spot both on the ground and from the air with a semi-regular spacing and they number in the hundreds of thousands. Tschinkel (2012) notes that the so-called fairy circles run “from southern Angola to northern South Africa wherever the soil is sandy and the rainfall is between 50 and 100 mm [1.97-3.94 inches] per annum.”
A fairy circle in Namibia. (Thorsten Becker/ CC BY SA 2.0 de )
The oral myths of the Himba people , a pastoral group that inhabit Namibia and Angola, have explained the mysterious circles as the footprints left by the god Mukuru, their original ancestor. Tour guides have promoted the legend that the circles are created by the poisonous breath of an underground dragon. Fairies linking hands and dancing in circles has also been suggested in another supernatural explanation. Another otherworldly connection is that the site of the odd circles is allegedly a UFO hot spot.
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Tarnita told The Guardian that the researchers don’t suggest their simulation can explain all the fairy circles, though “We get a much more complete description of the patterns” by combining the effects of the simulated termites with those of the competitive plants.
New Historian says that other researchers have cast doubt on the results of the computer simulations, claiming that the team’s assumptions of rainfall averages and lifespans of termite colonies may not be accurate enough.
The fairy circles of Australia: (A) Aerial image of the regularly spaced gaps. (B) Self-organized formation of the gap pattern. ( C) Map of Western Australia where the fairy circles can be found to the east and south of the mining town Newman. ( Getzin S. et al )
Top Image: Fairy circles in the Marienflusstal area in Namibia. (Stephan Getzin/ CC BY SA 3.0 )