Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fairy circles

There is a ribbon of land that stretches from southern Angola through Namibia to the northwest of South Africa, a distance of about 1500 kms.  It lies between 60 kms and 100 kms from the Atlantic coast line.  It contains a mystery that has puzzled scientists for a very long time – and it continues to draw considerable scientific attention.

This is the land of the fairy circles – circles of lifeless land with sizes ranging from 1 metre to 12 metres in diameter. 

No plants grow in these circles, but they are often surrounded by a band of thick grass that stands higher than any surrounding vegetation, somewhat like the hair that surrounds a bald head.

Scientists have not established what causes these fascinating circles, although there appears to be agreement on two things:  first, underneath the circles there is more water in the soil than in the surrounding area, and second, traces of sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus) are found in most of the circles. 

Sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus)

One theory, proposed by biologist Norbert Juergens from the University of Hamburg, is that the sand termites eat the roots of all plants in an area, causing the barren patch on the surface.  Then when it rains, a pool of water forms under the surface because there are no roots to take up the water.

Other scientists argue that the termites are not the cause of the circles, but rather are there because the lifeless circles result in pools of subterranean water, which attracts the termites.

Another theory, proposed by Willem Jankowitz at the University of Namibia, is that methane gas rising to the surface from underground emissions kills the plants in these symmetrical areas.  This causes greater concentrations of water below the surface, which then attracts the termites.

And so the quest continues – biologists offering biological theories, chemists offering chemical theories, and so on.  It seems that scientists can never agree, and we still don’t have a convincing explanation of what causes these circles.

Or do we?

Are we looking in the wrong place for the answer  Are we taking the wrong approach?

I’m in favour of looking for a much simpler explanation.

Who better to provide the answer than the people who have lived in the area for centuries – the beautiful Himba people, who live in the north of Namibia.

Himba woman

People like this usually have explanations for phenomena like the fairy circles.  And the Himba are no exception.

They believe that the circles are the footprints of Mukuru – a benevolent god who brings rain and who heals the sick. 

But the Himba too seem not to be able to agree.  They also have a legend that living in a crack, deep underground, is a dragon that breathes out poisonous gas.  This gas rises to the surface killing the plants. 

Personally, I like the dragon explanation the best.

However, whatever the cause, the fairy circles are a great curiosity and an amazing sight.

Stan – Thursday


  1. Hmmm, could that (whatever "that" is) also explain our pock-marked moon or is that answer best left to lyricists and crooners?

  2. Or an alien having fun with a pogo stick!

  3. Children, Children. We are looking for a scientific explanation here. And that points in only one direction: the dragons. We all know that they breathe fire. They do this by exhaling methane. OBVIOUSLY, underground there is not enough oxygen to ignite the gas, which then seeps to the surface causing the circles. I leave it Professor Jankowitz to explain how the dragons make the their exhalations in such perfect circles. I can see him now, contemplating this in study, puffing on a cigar and blowing smoke rings.

  4. You beat me to it Annamaria! Seemed obvious to me.

    1. That's funny, Michael. I thought of you while I was making that comment. Given the frequent similarity in our turns of mind, I thought it would be an interpretation that would appeal to you.