Famously known as “fairy circles,” the particular bald spots that can be found in the Namibian grasslands were once considered a mystery.
Scientists were baffled not only by the striking patterns but also by their unusual exclusivity; it seems the six-sided honeycombs are found nowhere else in the world.
But a discovery made 6,200 miles away in the Australian outback has given scientists the key to crack the code. It turns out the sparse grasses organize themselves into the peculiar structures as a means of fighting back the dry environment.
Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, made the connection with the help of aerial photos taken near Newman, Australia.
Surprisingly, they found barren patterned patches similar to those in southern Africa, located in transitional landscapes where grasslands and the mighty desert meet.
According to lead study author Stephan Getzin, a researcher working with the UFZ, fairy circles have always been fascinating due to their “great regularity and homogeneity, even over vast areas.”
His study was featured in the Tuesday issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Plenty of theories have surfaced over the years, trying to find a scientifically sound explanation for the unique formations.
Some scientists thought it was the hungry ants or termites which created the patterns while others blamed toxic gases rising from the earth might for killing off plants in oddly regular patterns.
These theories were discarded in favor of a third, which could only be reached with the help of the similar circles found in Australia. Dr. Getzin said that in the comparatively bug-free Australian landscape, he discovered the plants organized themselves to deal with dry conditions.
And if he’s right, the team should found more on the matter. But first, Getzin and his Israeli colleagues Ehud Meron and Hezi Yizhaq, from the Ben-Gurion University of Negev, had to make sure the Namibian and Australian vegetation patches were the same.
They established that was true with the help of pattern analysis, aerial photos, and mathematical modeling. Even though soil conditions are somewhat different in the two locations, the team thinks that the same difficulty to gain water access causes vegetation to create similar-looking patterns.
Dr. Getzin explained that “for a long time, ecologists weren’t convinced that plants in dry areas could organize themselves because the theoretical principles for these processes lie in physics.” The mystery is now solved.
Image Source: Scibraai.co.za