June 19, 2014
Fairy Circles, Namibia’s Great Mystery
The world is full of legends, myths and the unexplained. Ghosts, monsters, aliens and natural phenomenon provide researchers, investigators and scientists with plenty of subjects to explore. Mysteries of the world are one of my favorite topics. So when I hear of an unexplained occurrence, it sparks my interest.
Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, aliens from outer space and ghost stories are plastered all over the Internet, in the news and are talked about around campfires. Most of us have heard of crop circles, presumed to be made by aliens. Many have been explained or are hoaxes.
However, in a stretch of desert land covering 1,100 miles in Namibia, there are thousands of bare spots surrounded by grass. They have come to be known as fairy circles. These circles have been studied for decades with many theories suggested, including made by aliens, but they still remain a mystery.
Local legends from the Himba people claim they are caused by footprints of the gods or spirits with magical powers. Another legend speaks of a dragon with poisonous breath kills the vegetation to form the circles.
These fairy circles range in size from 10 to 65 feet in diameter and have a life cycle of 30 to 60 years. They were first mentioned in literature in the 1920s and have been a topic of study ever since with no definite explanation of how they are formed. “The point is, fairy circles are still a mystery. There’s been lots of work done in the field and in labs, but none could solve the issue,” Stephan Getzin, a scientist from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany said in a CNN article
Last year, a suggestion that the circles were formed by sand termites was published in the journal Science. Author of the paper, Norbert Juergens explains the termites eat the roots of the grass and it dies. However, this has not been proven along with all other explanations that have been raised over the years. “I don’t want to overstate things, but there is not a single study showing that social insects can cause such large-scale homogenous distribution patterns, as revealed by our study,” adds Getzin.
Juergens study found termites in 80 to 100 percent of the circles and 100 percent in new circles and it is the only insect to live in the range of the circles. The circles grow in size as the termites eat the roots. However, when the circle reaches about 65 feet they begin to fill back in with vegetation.
“There is a high correlation between fairy circles and these termites, and therefore Juergens claimed that they’re the cause. But it’s just a correlation, and one of the most fundamental mistakes a scientist can make is to confuse correlation with causation. The termite theory is very appealing to people, because it’s relatively easy to understand, whereas self-organization requires some knowledge or intuition for how plants work,” says Walter Tschinkel, a biology professor at Florida State University who specializes in both social insect behavior and fairy circles.
Getzin and a team of Israeli experts came up with a theory of their own. They suggest the phenomenon is self-organization. This occurs when water is scarce in arid climates and the vegetation forms patterns to maximize the limited resources.
“If you go to Wikipedia and type in ‘tiger bush‘, you’ll find aerial images of a county in Niger where the vegetation forms in striped patterns. In Australia, you have [areas with grass circles known as] spinifex grass.” And “A few days ago, a professor in California sent me an example of ring-like patterns formed in the Mojave Desert,” Getzin said.
“Whereas all insect studies showed large-scale clumping of nest locations, self-organization in itself can cause homogenous spacing at those scales and even beyond to several kilometers,” he adds.
Another explanation on how these mysterious circles are formed is that they are on an underground chimney that carry poisonous gasses that kill the grass, but no gas has been detected as of yet.
The question was asked, “Are they arranged and positioned merely by chance — just like coins dropped accidentally and now scattered all over the place. Are there signs or distinguishable patterns of clustering in certain locations? Or do these patches perhaps need to maintain a minimum distance to their respective neighbours?” Getzin answered, “The occurrence of such patterning in nature is rather unusual. There must be particularly strong regulating forces at work.”
“We have adopted an entirely novel approach in this research. Although scientists have been trying to answer this question for decades their mystery remains as yet unresolved,” Getzin concludes on the formation of the fairy circles of Namibia.
Image Credit: Thorsten Becker