Another Explanation for Africa’s Enigmatic Fairy Circles

Using simulations, scientists report that a mixture of termites and plant competition may be responsible for the strange patterns of earth surrounded by plants in the Namib desert. 

By | January 20, 2017


Parts of the Namib desert are covered in “fairy circles,” patches of empty earth surrounded by plants. There are many myths about the origins of these strange patches: Some believe they are the footprint of gods or the result of poisonous dragon breath. Scientists have proposed two more plausible explanations—either termite colonies fighting for their share of greenery, or a case of resource competition between plants. Now, a study published Wednesday (January 18) in Nature suggests that both mechanisms may be at play.

“This is a classic thing in ecology where debates will emerge and go on for decades,” coauthor Rob Pringle, an ecologist at Princeton University, told the Washington Post. “And the resolution after all that time is usually, 'Well, it's a little bit of both.’”

Pringle and his colleagues ran computational models to see what types of patterns of vegetation hungry termites or competing plants could produce. When they added both processes to their simulated desert, they found patterns nearly identical to the fairy circles observed in the Namib desert, down to subtle features, such as the small clumps of plants that appear in grassy areas between the barren circles.

Still, not all experts are not convinced. Stephan Getzin, an ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, who was not involved in the research, told The New York Times that his group reported fairy circles in 2016 cropping up in areas that do not have any termites. “Logically, if there are fairy circles without the presence of termites, the termite theory cannot be considered as a strong explanation for the phenomenon.” 

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Avatar of: JonRichfield


Posts: 122

January 20, 2017

If correctly reported in context, the remark: “Logically, if there are fairy circles without the presence of termites, the termite theory cannot be considered as a strong explanation for the phenomenon” is typical of a class of logic that commonly leads to bad experimental design.

For a start it assumes that there is only one kind of fairy circle (which, given the wide spread and variety of the phenomenon, is ludicrous).

Secondly, if there IS only one type of fairy circle, and pigs roost in pinetrees on Tuesdays, then it assumes that the termites have to be present at all times at which anyone makes observations.

Thirdly, there could be only one type in the region, but that termites are only one, important, but non-essential, component cause.

It does not follow that any or all of these or similar ifs ands or buts must be correct, but it does mean that such conceptual variables need to be taken into consideration before one is in a position to apply Boolean algebra to assessments of rival explanations.

Avatar of: factotum666


Posts: 25

January 21, 2017

—either termite colonies fighting for their share of greenery,

Now one could substitute any other social insect for termites.   Maybe ones that are often ignored.   Or perhaps so small to escape notice. 


This statement “Logically, if there are fairy circles without the presence of termites, the termite theory cannot be considered as a strong explanation for the phenomenon.”

is kinda equivalent to:  Logically, if a person has a cough without having the flu, then we can eliminate the flu as being a source of a cough.

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