Mysterious ‘Fairy Circles’ Explained by Bugs?

A German scientist believes he has discovered the long-elusive source behind a phenomenon in southern Africa known as “fairy circles.”

"Fairy Circles" in the deserts of Namibia. Credit: Thorsten Becker/Wikimedia

The strange, barren circles appearing in desert grasslands across a 1,500 mile band can range from two to hundreds of feet in diameter, and have stumped generations of curious observers. Marked by tufts of grass and vegetation that rise along the outer rings of the formations, the fairy circles can be seen from airplanes and helicopters and give the landscape a bizarre polka-dot pattern.

Now, Norbert Juergens thinks he found the answer: the circles are indeed made by tiny creatures, and thirsty ones at that.

What local folklore called fairies, Juergens is calling sand termites.

A biologist at Germany’s Hamburg University, Juergens released the findings of a recent study in the journal Science.

Looking at insect life within the circles of the Namib Desert, Juergens consistently found sand termites. There were other types of insects in the circles too, but none as consistently as the sand termite.

“Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain the creation and maintenance of fairy circles,” says an abstract of the study in Science. “Using long-term data collected on the distribution and physical and biological components of these features, Juergens found that the circles are generated by the actions of the sand termite, which removes vegetation produced following intermittent rains.”

What’s all the termites’ hard work for? Juergens believes the circles act as traps for hard-to-find water, not unlike beavers working to create dams and ponds.

“Once generated, the circles collect water, which sustains the growth of perennial vegetation at the edges of the circles, allowing for long-term persistence of the termites,” according to Science.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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