Fishing for Clues to Solve Namibia’s Fairy Circle Mystery

Jan 20, 2017

By Nicholas St. Fleur

With its bone-dry grasslands and oppressive heat, the middle of the Namib Desert may seem like a strange place to go fishing. Yet there Jennifer Guyton and Tyler Coverdale were, standing in a sea of orange sand and brittle yellow grass with their 30-foot carp pole.

But the two Princeton graduate students weren’t trying to catch some sort of desert-dwelling dogfish or a literal “sand shark.” That would be absurd. Instead, they had swapped the hook with a camera so they could investigate the scenery around something much more scientifically sensible: fairy circles.

That is what scientists call the mysterious bald spots speckled across Namibia’s grasslands. The rings are six feet to 115 feet wide and are regularly spaced out in a hexagon or honeycomb pattern. As their ethereal name would imply, fairy circles have long bewildered researchers as to their origins. But a new study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature that Ms. Guyton and Mr. Coverdale were involved in seeks to offer some insights into how the enchanting landscapes may have formed.

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One comment on “Fishing for Clues to Solve Namibia’s Fairy Circle Mystery”

  • @OP link – Norbert Juergens, a biologist from the University of Hamburg in Germany who published the study that said termites engineer fairy circles agreed with the overall findings and said that he hoped they would “be an eye-opener for all those who since 2013 questioned the termite hypothesis.”

    If there is evidence of termite nests in relation to these circles, this is feasible.

    Stephan Getzin, an ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, was not persuaded, saying in an email that the paper was unable to account for the presence of fairy circles where sand termites were completely absent, as in Australia.

    There is no reason to assume that circles in Australia have the same cause as in Africa!
    Rings can form simply by vegetation spreading outwards from an initial starting plant which dies as it exhausts the nutrients in the centre of the ring while spreading outwards colonising new ground on the outside.

    “Logically, if there are fairy circles without the presence of termites, the termite theory cannot be considered as a strong explanation for the phenomenon,” he said.

    There can be many causes for circles in vegetation:- addition or depletion of minerals or water, or consumption of the vegetation by some predatory force, such as termites or fungi.

    There can also be “fairy rings” in wet locations as a fungus spreads outwards from an initial point through turf – breaking down dead material and releasing nutrients which “green” a circle of grass.
    Eventually this also produces a ring mushrooms or toadstools.

    Understanding fairy rings requires an understanding of how mushrooms grow. Like apples on an apple tree, the “mushrooms” we see are only the reproductive fruit bodies of the “true” organism, which is called a mycelium. The mycelium grows underground; it is a mass of elongated, hungry cells that feed on nutrients, pushing and growing through the substrate as long as there is food available.

    When the substrate is evenly composed–that is, when the food supply is constant and uninterrupted–the mycelium grows ever-outward, leaving behind the nutrient-poor substrate it has consumed and pushing into new territory. If the mycelium decides to produce mushrooms, the result is a fairy ring. Many species produce mushrooms more or less annually.

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