The mystery of the fairy circles of the Namibian desert | Environment | All topics, from climate change to conservation | DW
Humans have long sought ways to explain why certain planetary events occur, whether geological, celestial, environmental, or meteorological. But in the absence of science, humans have often turned to storytelling.
Some ancient cultures believed that the sun’s temporary extinction during a total eclipse was the result of an evil trying to engulf it. Earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis have been blamed on the wrath of the gods.
Over the years, we have found scientific explanations for many of these phenomena, but scientists do not always find an agreement, as is the case with the “fairy circles” of Namibia. Circles are actually patches of bare soil surrounded by vegetation. They appear by the thousands in the Namib Desert.
Fairy circles have largely defied the explanation. According to local legend, these are footprints left by the gods or scorched plaques caused by the flaming breath of a dragon. Scientists have come up with theories that include circles formed by ostriches rolling in dust as well as contamination with radioactive material.
Fairy circles are patches of bare soil in grasslands that form a uniform circular pattern
Plants or termites?
There are, however, two main explanations for the formation of circles – both of which have passionate adherents. One hypothesis suggests that the circular spots are caused by subterranean sand termites that have cleared vegetation in areas around their nests. The other claims of plants competing for water may explain the model.
Both camps fiercely defend the rigors of their respective hypotheses, but earlier this year a team of scientists published results in the journal Nature suggesting that both hypotheses were correct. The appearance of the circles “cannot be explained by either mechanism in isolation.” The team’s computer models discovered that the model could be best explained as an interaction between termites and plants.
Yet not everyone is happy with this suggestion. Dr Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Germany, who is firmly on the team’s plant, said at the time, that the research did not address the presence of such circles in areas without termites.
Apparently, the mystery is not entirely solved.