Namibia’s ‘Fairy Circles’ May Have Their Mysterious Origins Explained!

Namibia's 'fairy circles' mystery

Durable grasses, spread out over a vast area of the Namib Desert, struggle to survive on the scant precipitation that falls there.

It is impressive and mysterious that so much grass can grow in such a harsh environment. The grassland is covered in a mysterious polka-dot pattern of “fairy circles,” which are millions of odd circles devoid of grass or other vegetation.

This zone of circular gaps in the grassland is located 80 to 140 kilometers (50 to 87 miles) inland from Namibia’s coast, and the authors of the study note that it displays “an extraordinary degree of spatial ordering.”

The diameter of a typical fairy circle is 2-10 meters, with a separation of up to 10 meters from any other circle.

Scientists have made steady progress in debunking the mystery of Namibia’s fairy circles, with the most prominent hypotheses falling into two camps.

Both termites eating the roots and the grasses self-organizing to make the most of available water are proposed as possible explanations for the circles.

Both termites and self-organization have been suggested as possible explanations for the fairy circles, and studies have provided support for both hypotheses. However, the termite connection became murkier after reports of similar circles in Australia in 2016.

New evidence strongly supports the idea that the grasses self-organize into fairy circles to make the most of limited rainfall, although this doesn’t prove that termites aren’t also at work.

Namibia's 'Fairy Circles' May Have Their Mysterious Origins Explained!

The water-scarcity scenario received additional backing in 2020 from research led by Stephan Getzin of the Department of Ecosystem Modeling at the University of Goettingen in Germany. Getzin and his colleagues described the scenario as an example of a Turing pattern.

For their most recent study, Getzin and his team of researchers traveled back to Namibia to look into 10 different regions of the Namib Desert in search of more convincing evidence.

There is high variability in the frequency and severity of droughts in this region. Researchers have noticed that after a rain, grass will sometimes sprout within the fairy circles, but it usually dies off quickly while grass outside the circles thrives.

Getzin and his team monitored sporadic rainfall across 10 regions, inspecting grasses, their roots and shoots, and any possible root damage caused by termites.

Starting in the dry season of 2020 and continuing through the end of the rainy season in 2022, soil-moisture sensors were installed in and around fairy circles to record data at half-hour intervals, allowing for a study of the conditions surrounding grass dying after rainfall.

The research found that ten days after a rain, there was very little new growth inside the fairy circles, and the grass that had sprouted was already dying. The grass inside the circles was dead twenty days after the rain, while the grass outside was “green and soft.”

Dead grass inside the circles had roots that were just as long as, or even longer than, that outside, indicating that the plants were making a significant investment in root growth to search for water. The team reports no signs of root damage or termite infestation.

The Earliest Documented Research Dates Back To The Year 2000

Back in the early 2000s, when we first set out to investigate the fairy circles in the northwest of Namibia, hardly anything was known about them.

Neither the Afrikaans language (Theron 1979, Eicker et al. 1982) nor a conference proceeding had any substantial databases, and only a few hypotheses had been mentioned about the origin of fairy circles (Moll 1994).

The Earliest Documented Research Dates Back To The Year 2000

Thus, it was difficult to put the claims made in our publication (Becker & Getzin, 2000) in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology to the test in the absence of such information.

Prior to this discovery, there were two competing explanations for the circular bare-soil patch: 1) the allelopathic interaction between poisonous Euphorbia damarana plants and grass vegetation, where the decomposed Euphorbia remains are thought to kill the grass (Theron, 1979); and 2) the clipping of grass by harvester termites of the species Hodotermes mossambicus (Moll 1994).

Around the Brandberg, there is a fairy circle and a bush called Euphorbia damarana. While our 2000 expedition did discover harvester termites clipping off grass stems, which likely led to a vegetation-free patch, the Euphorbia hypothesis cannot account for the recurrence of new fairy circles in areas devoid of Euphorbia bushes.

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We also documented heat-tolerant carnivorous Ocymyrmex ants feeding on heat-sensitive harvester termites, leading us to hypothesize that both the heat sensitivity of the termites and predation by ants may contribute to the observed size constraints of fairy circles.

Nature’s Greatest Mystery?

As early as June 2014, CNN cited our research in an article titled Namibia’s ‘fairy circles’: Nature’s greatest mystery?, and the following month, the BBC published Mystery fairy circles defy explanation.

Nature’s Greatest Mystery

The article What fairy circles teach us about science makes a compelling case that this controversy shows that science is a process, not a set of facts.

In February 2015, researchers from all over the world met at Wolwedans for the first annual Fairy Circle Symposium to debate the various theories surrounding fairy circles.

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Another article we published in 2015 in Ecological Entomology provided further support for the self-organization hypothesis of plant communities and elucidated the pattern characteristics in greater depth.


Fairy circles in Namibia are caused by plant water stress rather than termite herbivory. A View from the Past: 125698, Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 2022 The citation for this work is: 10.1016/j.ppees.2022.125698.

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Karan Siradi

I am an author and a public speaker. I was born in India and have travelled to many different countries. I have a masters in public communication from California University and I love to write about famous peoples from different industries.

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