Mysterious fairy circles demystified: it's termites (Update)

Mar 28, 2013
Numerous tracks of Oryx antelopes crossing fairy circles in an interdune pan. Aerial view of Namibrand, Namibia. Credit: N. Juergens

They appear in the desert in southwest Africa and persist for decades: so-called fairy circles, or puzzling rings of grass with a barren center.

Now a new study, published Thursday in the US journal Science, purports to end the enigma and explain just what is going on: it's the work of termites.

The fairy circles, which can stretch up to around 50 feet (15 meters) in diameter, are especially common in Namibia, where the indigenous Himba people attribute them to .

Among scientists, the termite theory had been proposed previously but put aside for a lack of evidence.

But botanist Norbert Juergens of Germany's University of Hamburg plunged into the investigation and has offered convincing evidence that the behind fairy circles are likely a particular termite species called Psammotermes.

A fully developed fairy circle with a green perennial belt (living grass plants) and a yellowish matrix (dead short-lived plants), both formed by the same species of grass (Stipagrostis ciliate). Farm Dieprivier / Namib Desert Lodge, Namibia. Credit: N. Juergens

By studying a strip of desert 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) long, stretching from mid-Angola down to northern South Africa, Juergens determined that these termites were the only organisms consistently present when the circles were in the earliest stages of forming.

The researcher observed that the termites feed off the roots of perennial grasses, effectively wiping out the plant life nearby.

But the bare patch is then able to hold on to moisture better, because the is not used and evaporated by plants. That helps the termites—and the vegetation around the edge of the circle—thrive, even during the dry season.

The result is an ecosystem, engineered by , transformed from a desert into a , Juergens explained.

Explore further: Endangered clouded leopard kittens born in Miami zoo

More information: "The Biological Underpinnings of Namib Desert Fairy Circles," by N. Juergens, Science, 2013.

Related Stories

Ants, termites boost wheat yields

Mar 30, 2011

( -- In an exciting experiment with major implications for food production under climate change, CSIRO and University of Sydney scientists have found allowing ants and termites to flourish increased ...

Worker ants paralyze and kill termites from afar

Dec 14, 2011

Worker ants from a particular species of African ants have potent venom that can paralyze and kill termites from a distance, according to a study published Dec. 14 in the online journal PLoS ONE.

Termites get the vibe on what tastes good

Mar 20, 2007

Researchers from CSIRO and UNSW@ADFA have shown that termites can tell what sort of material their food is made of, without having to actually touch it. The findings may lead to improvements in the control of feeding termites. ...

Recommended for you

Clues to aging from long-lived lemurs

22 hours ago

When Jonas the lemur died in January, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, he was the oldest of his kind. A primate called a fat-tailed dwarf lemur, Jonas belonged to a long-lived clan. Dwarf ...

Cats relax to the sound of music

Mar 30, 2015

According to research published today in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery by veterinary clinicians at the University of Lisbon and a clinic in the nearby town of Barreiro in Portugal, music is likew ...

Fruit flies crucial to basic research

Mar 30, 2015

The world around us is full of amazing creatures. My favorite is an animal the size of a pinhead, that can fly and land on the ceiling, that stages an elaborate (if not beautiful) courtship ritual, that can ...

Crete's mystery croc killed by cold snap

Mar 30, 2015

A man-eating crocodile that became an attraction on the Greek island of Crete last year after its mysterious appearance in a lake has died, probably of cold, an official said Monday.

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 28, 2013
Magic fairyland termites or the regular kind?
1 / 5 (3) Mar 28, 2013
"divine intervention" the difference between knowledge and ignorance...
1 / 5 (2) Mar 29, 2013
"Icy-Zhit Garbage Endurance Tactics" Syndromé
not rated yet Mar 29, 2013
"Juergens determined that these termites were the only organisms consistently present when the circles were in the earliest stages of forming."
Well, that satisfies one and one-half of Koch's Postulates (#2 and half of #1). Two and a half to go:
(1B) Is Psammotermes always missing from Stipagrostis grasslands lacking the circles?
(3) Does introducing Psammotermes to Stipagrostis grasslands lacking the circles result in circle formation?
(4) Is Psammotermes isolated from artificially induced circles (in #3) genetically identical to the sample introduced?
Three "Yes" answers buys you a confirmation of the hypothesis.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 31, 2013
Well, according to the article biologists are already convinced, i.e. it is already an observation. But Koch's postulates, used in medicine, could take the observation further.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.