Fairy circles, those strange forms visible in the plains of the Namib Desert, have been baffling scientists for decades. But a new study may well offer the definitive answer to this mystery.
If you fly over the plains of the Namib Desert in southern Africa, you will see strange barren circles throughout the grassy expanse at regular intervals. Called ‘fairy circles,’ these strange formations have long confused scientists. Termites? Competing plant life? Their source could have finally been revealed through studies of the ground and drone overflights.
A rare and surprising phenomenon
To the researchers' knowledge, fairy circles are only observable in the Namib Desert and in Western Australia, near the city of Newman. Despite the 6200 miles separating them, the formations are identical in their layout. The origin of these surprising circles devoid of vegetation has evaded researchers since the 1970s.
In order to unlock their secrets, a team of scientists traveled east of Newman and dug 154 holes in 48 fairy circles over a distance of 7.5 miles. Using drones, they also mapped zones measuring 1600 feet-by-1600 to compare typical holes that are naturally encountered in vegetation (such as those created by termites) with those in the fairy circles.
Termites ruled out
Circled shapes produced by termites have been shown to be smaller and less ordered than fairy circles. In addition, the absence of termite mounds in most areas - as well as the lack of correlation between those present and the distribution of circles - allowed the researchers to eliminate the hypothesis that termites are involved.
According to their study published in Ecosphere, soil density and clay concentration suggest that fairy circles are the result of an abiotic process, namely the erosion caused by torrential rains during cyclones, extreme heat, and evaporation. Further studies will confirm this hypothesis.