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Scientists Solve the Mystery of Fairy Circles

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Mar 28, 2013 03:34 PM EDT
Scientists believe they may have cracked the code behind "fairy cricles." (Photo : Wikicommons)

For years, the appearance of rings in the Namib Desert floor, called "Fairy Circles," have confused the world.

Able to last as long as 75 years, the rings have an almost crop circle feel to them, eating away at the grass surrounding it to form a brown circle in a sea of green.

The mystery, however, may have been solved - and it's not aliens. It's termites.

The discovery came as biologist Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg realized that the dirt circles contained sand termites.

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Moreover, they contained other telltale signs of the insect, including foraged plant material and underground tunnels, signaling that they were not just visiting when Juergens saw them.

He then measured the water content of the soil over the coarse of several years - 2006 to 2012 - and found more than 2 inches of water was stored in the top 39 inches of soil, including during the dry seasons. 

Without grass to absorb the water, more is left over for the thirsty termites when it rains.

In an article published in the journal Science, Juergens calls the termites work ecosystem engineering as they appear to be feasting on the roots of the grass, hence creating the rings. Though as to why they are circular, the jury is still out.

In an email to Live Science, Chemist Yvette Naude of the University of Pretoria, South Africa, explained that while she believes the study is a valuable addition to the fairy ring debate, it is by no means a complete explanation since termites usually enrich soil, not deplete it, as seen in the cases of the fairy rings.

Going forward, the question facing scientists is whether the termite create the circles, or just live in them.

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