Mysterious Fairy Circles In African Deserts

On July 22, 2015 by Tim Newman

Fairy Rings Africa Namibia Desert - With Tree

You may have heard about the fungus based “fairy rings” that spring up in the countryside. If you’re lucky you might have even come across one on a sunny country ramble. The fairy circles discussed below are nothing to do with mushrooms at all though. And rather than being easily explainable, so far, these desert fairy circles have eluded decoding.

These odd rings are found predominantly in the deserts of Namibia, but can also be found in parts of Angola and South Africa. They consist of patches of barren earth fringed by a proliferation of knee-deep grass. They vary in size from 2 to 15 metres in diameter and occur in their millions in dusty dry locations.

Fairy Rings Africa Namibia Desert - With Cattle

The fairy circles have a lifespan of 30 to 60 years. They start small, grow to a peak of generally 12 metres and then slowly disappear as plant life colonises the bare interior.

Fairy Rings Africa Namibia Desert - Strip

The Himba people who live in the vicinity of these mysterious bald patches have their own ways to explain them. According to legend they are magical and caused by the gods. They believe they were made by the original creator Mukuru, either that or simply footprints of the gods. Although these myths and legends may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, so far, the scientific community hasn’t managed to get a definitive answer either.

Fairy Rings Africa Namibia Desert - Long Grass

So what are the theories we have to play around with?

One of the longest lasting theories is that termites are the cause. It’s true that termite castes are found in fairy rings, but, because the forms of the circles vary, and don’t occur in all the places that termites occur, the theory seems to be slowly losing favour. But this is it in a nutshell according to researcher Norbert Jeurgens:

Sand termites create the fairy circle by consuming vegetation, and burrowing in the soil to create the ring. The barren circle allows water to percolate down through sandy soil and accumulate underground, allowing the soil to remain moist even under the driest conditions. Grass growth around the circle is promoted by the accumulated soil water, and in turn the termites feed on the grasses, slowly increasing the diameter of the circle. This behavior on the part of Psammotermes allocerus amounts to the creation of a local ecosystem in a manner analogous to behaviour of the common beaver.

Walter R. Tschinkel, a biologist at Florida State University has commented on Jeurgens’ theory, saying that he has…

…made the common scientific error of confusing correlation (even very strong correlation) with causation.

Hit this link to see a small patch of these mysterious rings and get an idea of how widespread they are in some areas: 24.95°S 15.93°E.

Fairy circles

Another theory goes that landscapes with a mixture of grasses can result in barren spots as a consequence of under-ground competition between different types of grasses. The patches are maintained because they form a reservoir of nutrients for the taller grasses at the periphery and possibly because of the activity of termites, as in the theory above. Apparently, by using rainfall, biomass and temperature seasonality, they can predict with high accuracy the presence or absence of fairy circles in a region. According to Walter Schinkel, this theory accounts for all the characteristics of fairy circles, including the presence of tall grass species.

So perhaps that’s the answer. Perhaps it isn’t. As Tschinkel mentions above, even if you can predict something it doesn’t mean that you’ve found the cause. For instance, I can predict that Eastenders will come on the telly after I’ve finished the washing up, but that doesn’t mean that the BBC’s schedule is influenced by my squeezing of a Fairy Liquid bottle.

Fairy Rings Africa Namibia Desert - Google Maps

Scientists are all still happy to debate and wonder about these fairy rings, everyone loves a bit of a mystery, especially scientists. Other theories involve radioactive soil, UFOs, meteorites and plant toxins but, again, they seem to have been ruled out (apart from UFOs of course, which is where my money is).

The fairy rings are likely to hold onto their mysteries for some while longer, in part due to their position. They are situated in an area known locally as “the land god made in anger”. No one with any choice in the matter spends much time there. Interestingly, each type of scientist that visits has his own pet theory about the place;  insect biologists think the circles are the work of ants or termites, the plant physiologists think it’s grasses, the chemists reckon it’s gases and microbial ecologists are convinced it’s microbial ecology at work.

For now, we’ll just have to keep on guessing.

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