Theory May Finally Explain Fabled 'Fairy Circles'

It's a combo of plants and termites
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 19, 2017 9:54 AM CST
Theory May Finally Explain Fabled 'Fairy Circles'
In this photo provided by Jen Guyton, one of the mysterious “fairy circles” in the Namib Desert that dot the area with circular barren patches.   (Jen Guyton/ via AP)

Scientists are always crashing the party when they bring the likeliest but often mundane reasons for mysterious phenomena. Such is the case in Namibia, where so-called "fairy circles" that pockmark the desert are now being explained in the journal Nature as not the footprints of gods or poisoned patches of dragon breath (both popular stories) but rather as a fight for resources within groups of termites and between nearby plants. Computer simulations have created an "exact agreement" with the bare mounds in Namibia, and the two-pronged ecological explanation may help solve similar mysteries elsewhere, reports Gizmodo, including the Mima Mounds in North America and Australia's version of fairy circles.

Namibia's fairy circles are hexagon-shaped areas of soil whose perimeter is ringed by clumps of grasses. The patches range from as few as six to as many as 115 feet wide, and in Africa's Namib Desert, they cover hundreds of square miles. Previous theories blamed the underground termites or the desert plants, but the study in Nature makes the case that the circles "cannot be explained by either mechanism in isolation." Instead, it's a combination of those two factors, though mostly the termites, notes AP. "One of the most striking things about nature is that despite the complexity of all of its interactions ... you find these amazing regularities," Princeton researcher Corina Tarnita tells the Guardian. (Another weird quirk of the circles: They resemble skin cells.)

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