Have Scientists Solved the Mystery of the Desert’s ‘Fairy Circles’?


The enigmatic circles of sand — burnt orange, almost impeccably round and rimmed by a fringe of tall grass — are spaced at surprisingly regular intervals across the otherwise barren landscape. Over the course of decades, they appear, expand and then fade, almost as if they had a life cycle of their own.

And, viewed from above, they seem so perfect and improbable their existence can only be ascribed to something not of this world. Perhaps they are the footprints of a god, as the Himba bushmen who live in the Namib desert have long believed. Or maybe the bare patches have been poisoned by the breath of a malicious dragon that dwells underground.

Or else they’re the work of aliens who thought it might be fun to mess with the Earthlings by scratching out some circles in the grass and leaving us to puzzle over them for centuries. Hardly less fanciful— though far more grounded in fact — was this suggestion from a German scientist in 2013: After finding sand termites in every “fairy circle” he sampled, he concluded that the industrious insects might be geoengineering their harsh environment, burrowing out bare spots in ever-broader concentric circles in order to capture some of the desert’s scarce water for themselves.

Whatever their cause, the fairy circles have brought countless scientists, mystics and conspiracy theorists to remote swath of southern African desert that was long thought to be the only place they could be seen.

Those people didn’t know about Newman, Australia.

Unbeknownst to almost anyone outside the small mining town, the same strange phenomenon that so captivated people in the Namib also occurs in Australia’s outback. Not only that, but a comparison of the two types of fairy circles could help solve the centuries-old mystery of what’s creating them.

It’s not gods, scientists said Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it’s not dragons or bugs.

It’s the plants themselves. They’ve self-organized.

This is not an entirely new theory. South African biologist Michael Cramer suggested it in a paper in 2013, and a year later the lead author of the PNAS study, Stephan Getzin, conducted his own analysis of aerial images of the Namibian circles to develop a computer model that could explain how plants — which lack central nervous systems, and, you know, an understanding of the notion “circle” — could coordinate themselves in this way.

Their motive for doing so — if plants can really be ascribed a motive — is pretty simple: In a desert environment where water is scarce, the land can only sustain so much vegetation. Attempting to carpet the entire earth with grass would be a recipe for mutually assured destruction, so instead the plants organize into clumps. Covered areas soak up the water from bare areas, and everyone drinks, even when it’s been months since the last rainfall. That’s how the area around the fairy circles can sustain full-time vegetation when the rest of the Namib desert is desolate except for right after a rain.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan