Is the Mystery of Namibia’s Fairy Circles Finally Solved?

Is the Mystery of Namibia’s Fairy Circles Finally Solved?

This closeup of a fairy circle was taken during sunset in the Namib Naukluft Park, Namibia. Mark Dumbleton/Shutterstock

Between 2020 and 2022, Getzin and his research team collected soil and plant samples in 10 regions of the Namib Desert where fairy circles are found. In the study, Getzin noted that the key to their research was collecting data from plants and soil before and after rainfall, which can be difficult to predict in the desert. Thankfully, 2021 and 2022 were particularly rainy years.

Getzin’s team found that within a few weeks after rainfall, grasses that formed the ring around the circle depleted the water in the top 8 inches (2 meters) of soil on the inside of the circle. Plants inside the circle died within three weeks, giving plants on the edge of the circle the best chances of survival.

“Under the strong heat in the Namib, the grasses are permanently transpiring and losing water. Hence, they create soil-moisture vacuums around their roots and water is drawn towards them. Our results strongly agree with those of researchers who have shown that water in soil diffuses quickly and horizontally in these sands even over distances greater than 7 meters,” said Getzin , in a press statement.

Here’s how that works: When hot, dry locations experience rare rainfall, it’s not just animals that compete for water. Plants have also come up with ways to survive in these environments. As plants lose water from their leaves, they need to take water up from their roots. In the case of the Namib fairy circles, established grasses draw water from the center of the ring, soaking up the available resources and leaving the newly germinated grass to die in the center.

Vegetation that grows in striking patterns is not unique to Africa. Australia, America and Asia have also revealed incredible formations of what scientists call self-organizing vegetation, in which plant life creates grids, gaps, stripes, and labyrinth patterns across different landscapes, including peat bogs and mussel beds. These patterns are often called “Turing patterns,” named after scientist Alan Turing, credited with first introducing the concept.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the vegetation in Namib grows in circles, but some researchers say it has to do with the amount of rain and the landscape’s slope that contribute to an area’s formation. No matter the shape, the study strongly suggests that plant water stress is at the root of the Namib Desert’s fairy circles. Perhaps fairies don’t live in the desert after all.

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