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Centuries-Old Mystery of “Fairy Circles” May Have Been Solved

It turns out the phenomenon doesn’t occur just in Africa!

| 3 min read

It turns out the phenomenon doesn’t occur just in Africa!

A very captivating and mysterious phenomenon, once believed to occur only in Namibia, Africa, may have finally been solved.

Fairy circles are strange, almost perfectly round patches of sand rimmed by a fringe of tall grass that are often spaced at fairly regular intervals across an otherwise barren landscape. Over the course of decades, they appear, expand and then fade — as if they have a life cycle of their own.

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These unique circles have brought countless scientists, conspiracy theorists, and tourists to this remote area of the southern African desert, which was long believed to be the only place these phenomena occurred. Until now.

Enter Newman, Australia.

Almost no one outside the small mining town knew this, but the strange formations also occur in the Australian outback. By comparing the two types of fairy circles, scientists believe they can solve the centuries-old mystery of what creates them.

The circles in Australia were found to be very similar to the ones in Namibia, co-author Todd Erickson, a biologist at the University of Western Australia, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Each fairy circle is roughly 12 feet in diameter, and they are spaced 30 feet from the next nearest circle. If you were to stand inside one of the circles, you wouldn’t be able to tell that you were in the middle of a pattern. However, from above, the fairy circles are grouped in hexagon-like formations.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), explain the science behind the formation, and it turns out it has to do with the plants themselves: they self-organize.

In a desert environment where water is scarce, the land can only sustain so much vegetation. If the plants were to cover the entire surface with grass, it would guarantee mutually assured destruction — everybody dies. Instead, the plants organize into clumps and use the covered areas to soak up the water from the bare areas. Thus, everybody gets water, even when it has been months since the last rainfall. Clever plants!

In Australia, after a rainfall, the water is pulled in all directions by the plants, and depending on how the plants are distributed, some spots inevitably become drier — nothing grows there. These barren areas result in the clay soil becoming hard and impermeable, so that the next time it rains, the water skims over the surface of the clay until it reaches an area where the plants are growing. This allows the plants to grow larger with bigger roots, enabling them to take even more water from their neighbors — killing them and making the fairy circles even larger.

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In Namibia however, the circles form in a slightly different way. Instead of the water being pulled into the roots of the nearby plants, the water sinks into a porous Namibian desert sands, turning the fairy circles into a water reservoirs for plants during long dry periods.

Nevertheless in both places, the mechanism and the result are the same, according to the researchers. The self-organization of plants due to fighting over water leads to a pattern that repeats itself across the landscape.

The find in Australia, “is pretty good evidence for the self-organizing theory,” South African biologist Michael Cramer said in an interview with New Scientist. “There is still a long way to go to make it conclusive, but I think the evidence is mounting.”

There are likely more locations around the world where this phenomenon occurs just waiting to be discovered, and although the results do not completely solve the mystery, they are definitely one step closer.

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