For years fairy circles have been one of nature’s great, enduring mysteries. A defining feature of the majestic Namib Desert, Namibia these dusty patches of earth, ringed with tall grass and dispersed evenly across 1,100 miles have eluded explanation and confounded scientists.
Like the Bermuda Triangle, or until recently the sailing stones of Death Valley, speculation has been rife. Explanations for the circles, which can be from 10 to 65 feet across, have ranged from alien invasion to poisonous gasses. A paper from 2001 says people have claimed they’re the impact sites of meteorites, rolling spots for zebra or even localized radioactivity.
However a group of biologists and mathematicians in a Princeton-led study claim to have solved the curious case of the fairy circle – and in the process, hope to unify the scientific community on the subject.
Before this month’s study, published in the journal Nature on January 19, scientists were bitterly divided.
One camp, backed up by research from the 1990s and 2000s by Eugene Moll, Carl Albrecht and Norbert Juergens, argued for what’s best summarized as “the termite theory”: that the bare patches of earth were the result of hungry underground termites eating vegetation in the area surrounding their colony. This theory was originally derived from the proposal of ecologist Ken Tinley in 1971, who suggested fairy circles were fossilized termite mounds.
On the other side were proponents of self-organization: that vegetation naturally formed circles under the right conditions in order to make the most out of available moisture and soil nutrients. This theory was first applied to fairy circles in 2004 and expanded upon in 2008, explains Corina Tarnita from the Princeton team. In 2014 Stephan Getzin advocated strongly for self-organization, debunking the termite theory when speaking to CNN.
“The termite theory is very appealing to people, because it’s relatively easy to understand,” Walter Tschinkel, a biology professor at Florida State University, quipped at the time.