If there’s one thing you never expect to hear about in the rough world of the Australian outback, it’s fairy circles. We’re not talking about those rings of mushrooms that inspired so many tales of flying dragons and dancing elves, witches and fairies. These are the mysteriously uniform formations of round patches of dried earth surrounded by lush greenery that, until now, have only been found in the grasslands of the Namib desert in the Republic of Namibia in southwest Africa. What’s spreading them? Are they contagious?
According to a new study on fairy circles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Australian versions were found two years ago near Newman in Western Australia by Australian environmental scientist Bronwyn Bell while flying over the area – the only way to actually see these fairy circles. Fairy circle expert (yes, it’s a real job) Stephan Getzin from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany confirmed they’re real fairy circles, measuring anywhere from 4 to 7 meters (13 to 23 feet) in diameter. From the air, the circles appear uniformly spaced, sometimes in hexagonal patterns.
That covers the “what” but not the “why” of the first fairy circles outside of Namibia. The long-held theory that they were caused by termites was questioned a few years ago by Getzin (he IS a fairy circle expert, you know), who believes they’re caused by plants competing for scarce water resources by spacing themselves just far enough apart to get enough to sustain growth. Newman is a similar environment to the Namib desert and Getzin says the similarities in the circles and patterns confirm his theory. Just to make sure, he ran computer models that backed up the claim.
There are slight differences, says Getzin.
In Namibia, the sandy soils of the fairy circles are much more permeable and precipitation can drain away with ease. The details of this mechanism are different to that in Australia. But it produces the same vegetation pattern because both systems of gaps are triggered by the same instability.
If there’s two patches of fairy circles, there must be more. As long as there are remote, uninhabited desert areas to fly over, fairy circle expert Stephan Getzin will have a job.