The Namib Desert has a unique feature that has puzzled scientists for many years: “fairy circles” that come and go on the burnt orange ground.
These rings, all of which are almost perfectly round, are enclosed in fringes of grass. They form a hexagonal pattern that look like the spots on a Chinese checkers board. The rings appear suddenly on the landscape, expanding over time. Then just as surprisingly, they fade away and die. Their distribution over the desert is so uniform that they appear to be not of this world, the Washington Post reports.
The Himba people of northern Namibia, who have lived among these circles for centuries, have a mythical explanation for this phenomenon. They say the rings are footprints of gods who walked the Earth at the beginning of time. Others refer to the circles as “dead spots” created when a dragon beneath the ground breathes his poison out.
Scientists have argued over the more pragmatic reasons why these circles exist. Some researchers say they were caused by tiny insects that eat at the grass, while others say they are an example of how plants organize themselves.
Rob Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University, says,
This is a classic thing in ecology where debates will emerge and go on for decades. And the resolution after all that time is usually, ‘Well, it’s a little bit of both.’
Pringle and colleagues have come up with a theory that merges both of these ideas. Using computer models, the team demonstrated how termite colonies interact with the grass that grows around them in a complex system to form the rings. The research explained how the large circles arranged themselves, and also revealed the grassy spaces between them.
While the results don’t definitely answer the question of what causes these fairy circles, it does show scientific proof of how order can come from chaos, and is a lesson in geometry, math and physics taught by no less than nature itself.
The new study was published in the journal Nature.