The Namib Desert is dotted with thousands of mysterious “fairy circles,” which are near-perfect circles of barren soil two to fifteen meters wide, rimmed by tall grass. They are unmistakable and stretch for miles, giving the landscape an ethereal and otherworldly feel. Many possible explanations have been proposed, including toxic substances in the soil, meteorites, termites, UFOs, and the ghosts of dead natives. But the circles are extremely remote—more than 110 miles from the nearest village—and have been difficult to study scientifically. Despite decades of research, the cause of these bizarre circles has remained elusive.
But now, after a six-year study and more than 40 trips to the Namib Desert, Dr. Norbert Juergens believes he has come to understand the biological underpinnings of this strange phenomenon. According to Juergens, a single species of termites is responsible for creating and maintaining the circles. But the barren circles aren't just a byproduct of these tiny insects living below the sandy desert surface; they are part of a carefully cultivated landscape that helps the termites—and many other organisms—thrive in an otherwise inhospitable climate.
Juergens hypothesized that if the fairy circles’ cause was biological, the organism would need to co-occur with the circles and would probably not be found elsewhere. Only one species fit the bill:Psammotermes allocerus, the sand termite. Not only was the sand termite the only insect species that lived across the entire range of the fairy circles, but these termites were found to be living beneath nearly every circle sampled. And the harder the termites worked – foraging, burrowing, and dumping their refuse – the more grass died, leading Juergens to conclude that the termites keep the circles barren by burrowing underground and foraging on the roots of germinating grasses.
But the story doesn’t end there. The particular structure of the fairy circles—bare soil edged by tall grass— isn't just a side effect of the insects’ hard work. Instead, this characteristic architecture is vital to the termites' success, and even plays a role in structuring the rest of the ecosystem.
Written By: Kate Shawcontinue to source article at arstechnica.com