Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Desert Discs: Solving the mystery of Namibia’s ‘Fairy Circles’

Namibia’s ‘Fairy Circles’ have mystified scientists for decades, but a new theory may have hit upon an answer Namibia’s ‘Fairy Circles’ have mystified scientists for decades, but a new theory may have hit upon an answer
11 Apr
2017
For decades, scientists have been divided over how these eerily perfect circle arrangements are formed in the Namibian desert

They can be up to 80-feet wide and cover portions of the landscape for miles. A new theory by researchers at the University of Strathclyde and Princeton may have finally discovered their cause.

Until now there have been two competing arguments for the circles’ presence. One suggests that the desert shrubs are solely responsible – that they cause the circles by competing among themselves for rainwater.

The second argues it is in fact termites living underground destroying vegetation above their colonies, who, in an effort to reduce competition for water, then create barren discs of sand at the circumference of their reach.

The real reason could be somewhere in the middle. ‘Both theories are normally presented as mutually exclusive,’ says Dr Juan Bonachela, an ecologist from the University of Strathclyde and co-author of the study. ‘Our findings harmonise both.’

To create the ‘Fairy Circles’ (once believed to have been caused by the gods or spirits by the indigenous Himba people, and therefore ascribed spiritual and magical powers) termites ‘remove vegetation on their mounds to increase moisture, which is essential for the insects’ survival in dry environments, thus creating a bare disc,’ Bonachela says.

Vegetation around the mound takes advantage of this water accumulation to grow, and this taller vegetation forms the circle. The desert is a very competitive place for water, and where there are large areas with many circles it is from different termite colonies competing next to one another

For Bonachela, the Fairy Circles ‘remind us of the delicate balance of interactions necessary to sustain ecosystems.’ The mutual interactions are necessary because they allow the ecosystem to better survive periods of drought. By combining field samples from similar patterns in Kenya, Mozambique, Brazil, North America and Australia, the research could also offer explanations for arid vegetation patterns all over the world.

This was published in the April 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Deserts

An evening discussing Oman’s hidden conservation heritage. Fifty Geographical readers…

Deserts

Biosphere 2 was one of the most ambitious experiments in…

Forests

High-quality, affordable drones can revolutionise the way that landscape and…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the impact of volcanoes on nearby human…

Mapping

A volunteer-led digital mapping project is at the heart of…

Cities

As the planet urbanises, attention is turning towards the most…

Forests

Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many…

Cities

A rising number of cruise ships and their ‘overlooked’ diesel…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig charts the growth and impact of the world’s…

Deserts

Long-term studies reveal the Sahara desert has expanded substantially over…

Water

South America’s wealthiest economy is at a crossroads between environmental…

Forests

The European Court of Justice finds the logging of a…

Mountains

In this extract from his new book, Tides, mountain climber…

Cities

New data from the World Health Organization reveals that nine…

Water

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan,…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig maps out the global production and distribution levels…

Water

Millions of Americans are living in areas at high-risk of…

Mapping

New interactive maps combine precipitation and temperature to show climate…

Cities

Public transport in India could be on the verge of…

Water

To retrace the route of the fur voyageurs on the waterways…