A mystery around the Namib desert
After decades of relentless research, environmental scientists and mathematicians have come up with two main hypotheses about these circles. These are the plant competition hypothesis and the termite colony hypothesis, writes Chitrangada Saïkia
Wonder and mystery surround the magnificent “Fairy Circles”. They are one of the most beautiful creations of God. These unique “fairy circles” are found in the Namib Desert in Namibia, in southwestern Africa. They are 10 to 65 feet in diameter. Usually these are bare circles bordered by patches of vegetation. They stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Surprisingly, these circles appear from another world from images taken from various satellites. According to local folklore, “fairy circles” were once created by the god himself. Some say they are none other than the footprints left by God on the red soil of the Namib Desert. Another local tradition claims that these circles are patches of desert poisoned by the breath of the dragons living under the Namibian desert. This is mentioned in the folk tales of the Himba inhabitants of Namibia.
Far beyond that, it has always been popular in South West Africa that “Namibia is the land that God created in anger”. This comes from the vast regions of Namibia which consist of rugged and deeply threatening jungles. Indeed, rare documents show that this series of expressions would derive from local inhabitants who directly refer to the treacherous skeleton coast of the Namib Desert. So the tales of the fairy circles continue. They provide us with clues to rediscover the strange patterns.
Some mathematicians say that the whole landscape that covers the fairy circles looks like a polka dot dress. Interestingly, these dots are evenly spaced in the Namib Desert. From a distance and from the sky, they look like islands in a sea of small meadows. Even biologists have struggled to discover its existence. Tarnita, a theoretical biologist and her team at the prestigious Princeton University in the United States say that it is not possible to conduct close experiments on fairy circles in an area like the Namib Desert. Therefore, such large areas pose real obstacles to testing multiple hypotheses.
However, after decades of relentless research, environmental scientists and mathematicians have come up with two main hypotheses about these circles. These are the plant competition hypothesis and the termite colony hypothesis. First, the entire Namib Desert is an arid desert. And these arid deserts are normally found closer to the equator due to the direct sunlight it receives. Water is very scarce and existing plants struggle to survive in areas like the Namib Desert. About growing weird patterns like fairy circles, Tarnita says, “As the vegetation grows and grows in a patch, the small plants nearby cannot get the water they need to survive. The amount of vegetation thins or disappears at the edges of the plot, forming evenly spaced gaps.
So, all the fairy circles feature regular patterns across this desert. Second, the termite colony hypothesis says that under each of these plots there is a termite colony. According to environmentalists, eusocial insects where individuals are divided into specialized groups to support the overall survival of their colony make a large number of underground tunnels to carry food for the rest of the members. In this whole process, termites seem to destroy the vegetation around their colonies. Additionally, scientists state that if one colony encroaches upon another, they fight until their enemy is finished. In this long underground war of survival, a series of termite colonies develop over time. But it is interesting to note that these colonies appear to be of equal size and that there is no “termite land” between two colonies. These are some of the new revelations that are paving the way for future research.
Thus, Namibian fairy circles represent a unique ecosystem until 2015. In 2016, such fairy circles were discovered outside of Newman, in a small mining town called Pilbara region in Western Australia. This offers a new opportunity for the scientific community to discover once again the origin and growth of such phenomena. At present, Australian fairy circles indicate that these circles are the reaction of plants to scare the waters. Although the Australian and Namibian fairy circles are over almost thousands of kilometers apart, they are said to be identical. Unlike Namibia, where large numbers of insect species like ants and termites are found in fairy circles, the majority of circles found in Pilbara do not have ant or termite colonies. Such insect nests or mounds, wherever they are found in Australia, are also randomly distributed, unlike those in Namibia.
Besides their mysteries and scientific discoveries, fairy circles add to the beauty of the biodiversity of Namibia and Australia. They attract many insects and animals such as ants, bees, geckons, spiders, wasps, and small mammals like golden moles, bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackals, and aardvarks. Again, fairy circles can be seen as beautiful examples of allogeneic ecosystem engineering. Such ecosystems refer to an environment that transforms the environment by mechanically changing materials from one form to another. These terrestrial forms help restore the biomass of water, perennials and termites in the Namib Desert. As long as they do not pose a threat to the human and natural environment, fairy circles must be preserved.
For years, although scientists and researchers have suggested various theories about fairy circles, the mysteries have not yet ended about them. Therefore, its very existence is highly questionable. They would remain enigmatic unless they were destroyed in the course of nature or by human actions.
(The writer is a young environmental activist)