Australian Fairy Circles Discovered: Not Just An African Mystery Any Longer

Fairy circles have been discovered in Australia’s outback. Once thought to exist only in Africa, the mysterious biological anomalies that dot the Namibian desert were found to have counterparts some 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles) away. And the existence of the so-called fairy circles — or fairy rings — may no longer be such a mystery…

The New York Times reported on March 15 that scientists had determined that the rare phenomenon of numerous barren earth spots called “fairy circles” in the arid regions in Africa’s Namibian desert may not be unique. In fact, their presence and biological functionality seem to be very similar to comparable barren spots ringed with grassy growths in Australia. And up until a couple of years ago, the fairy circles in Australia had gone unnoticed by biologists. It took a study of the mysterious circles — and the reading of said study — to prompt an environmental restoration expert from Perth, Bronwyn Bell, to send an email to Stephan Getzin, the co-author of the study. With it was an aerial view of something very similar to Getzin’s study target.

“I was really astonished,” Dr. Getzin, ecologist at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Getzin, according to Smithsonian Magazine, received the email just three days after publishing his 2014 paper, which noted the odd regularity in the spacing of the Namibian fairy circles and posited that the phenomenon was caused by competition for resources, as opposed to alternate theories that the formations were caused by termites, aliens, or dragons. However, with Bell’s aerial photos of the Aussie desert fairy circles, Getzin was quick to begin contemplating the idea that the grasses that grew around the edges of the circles might be self-organizing, a theory proffered in a 2013 paper by South African biologist Michael Cramer.

The discovery of fairy circles in western Australia lent a certain credibility to the theory, not because of its similarity to the African circles but because of a basic difference in the terrain. Getzin and his team, whose paper appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, posit that a comparable “instability” in water access is the driver behind vegetation aggregating into similar-looking patterns on the two continents.

As explained by the Christian Science Monitor, the soil in Australia, sans vegetation, forms a hardened layer, a hard-packed and nearly impenetrable clay. This allows little to no saturation to occur and stymies further vegetative growth. But where grasses do find root in the desert, they act as a coolant on the surrounding earth, therefore allowing water to penetrate the soil and small copses or groups to emerge.

In the Namibia desert, though, the earth is sandier, which allows better water seepage. Even in areas that are quite barren, underground water reservoirs form, disseminating the water to nearby growths of vegetation.

“The details of this mechanism are different to that in Australia,” Getzin says about the African formations. “But it produces the same vegetation pattern because both systems of gaps are triggered by the same instability.”

The findings support a universality principle of pattern-formation theory. This theory suggests that the desert fairy circle formations could very well be found in other arid areas as well. Getzin has noted that some of the reluctance to accept the idea of such a theory is that it is based in physics, not biology. In fact, pattern-formation theory was developed by Alan Turing, the famed mathematician-turned-codebreaker and developer of the first computer who, during World War II, was instrumental in deciphering the German “Enigma Code.” His story was the inspiration for the Oscar-nominated 2014 film, The Imitation Game.

“You should never claim to put an end to the mystery,” Stephan Getzin told New Scientist. “We’ve just made one significant step forward in solving the problem.”

Even though the mystery of their origin may or may not have been solved – in science, there are often dissenting opinions or opposition to any given theory – it is as yet uncertain whether or not scientists will offer up an alternative moniker for the fairy circles. Despite the differences in the soil, studies of aerial photos of the African and Australian desert formations show a near-identical spatial patterning. Such oddities are enchanting curiosities, so perhaps “fairy circles” can be considered somewhat appropriate…

[Image via Stephan Getzin (via Beavis729)/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0]