The mysterious “fairy circles” – the reddish barren spots up to 15 metres across – in African desert are actually drawn by the tiny termites, according to a new study.
The Namib Desert’s strange circular patches of grass with bare centers are the result of termites establishing
reservoirs, researchers said.
The study, published in the journal Science, uncovers the origin of fairy circles, circular patches of perennial grasses with a barren center that grow in the desert on the southwest coast of Africa.
Fairy circles occur in regular patterns and can persist for decades, but the cause of these striking rings that dot
the Namibian desert was a mystery.
Now, scientist Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg shows that a particular species of sand termite called
Psammotermes are likely creating the circles.
Studying a 2000 kilometre-long belt of desert from mid Angola to Northern South Africa, Juergens noticed that
whenever he found fairy circles, Psammotermes termites were also found within the bare patch of the circle and in the surrounding vegetation.
The author determined that Psammotermes is the only organism constantly found in the earliest life stages of fairy
circles. In young fairy circles, Psammotermes feeds on the roots of grasses. More termite activity is correlated with reduced grass growth in the fairy circle.
Taking a closer look, Juergens discovered that the soil-living termites kill all grasses within the fairy circle
by feeding on their roots.
Because of the lack of grasses, rain water is not lost by transpiration – the evaporation of water from plants – but is instead stored in the depths of sandy soil, where it is sheltered against evaporation.
The soil water supply allows the termites to remain alive and active during the dry season, and helps grass plants
growing at the margin of the fairy circle to survive and grow.