What's Behind The 'Fairy Circles' That Dot West Africa?

There's a mystery in West Africa that's puzzled scientists for years. Strange circles of bare soil appear in grassland — they're commonly called "fairy circles." These naturally occurring shapes last for decades, until the grass eventually takes over and the circles fade.

Now German scientists think they have an explanation — a horde of insects seems to be bioengineering thousands of miles of desert.

If you fly from Angola down to South Africa you'll spot thousands of these "fairy circles" down below. They look like moon craters, and are anywhere from the size of a manhole cover to 30 feet across.

Scientists have had some good guesses as to what causes them (none of which include fairies or people): Poisonous plants, insects, seeping gas, even radiation. But no one could find evidence of any of these.

Then came one very determined biologist: Norbert Juergens. He traveled from the University of Hamburg in Germany to dig trenches inside the circles.

Juergens found that within every circle, the sandy earth beneath the surface was wet, even in the dry season. Juergens, who is not given to excitability, knew he was onto something extraordinary. "It was an exciting observation," he says, "because water is the most important resource in the desert. I sort of discovered 1 million little circular oases in the desert at that moment."

And there was something else odd about the circles — they were ringed by tufts of year-round grass. "It was a plantation," he says. "It's a plantation of plants created by some organism."

Juergens had been commuting back and forth from Germany for a couple of years, examining scores of these circles, and still hadn't found the cause. An organism, yes, he figured, but what kind?

He found spiders, beetles, ants, and even aardvarks in the circles. And termites. And only termites showed up beneath every circle.

Juergens figured out what these termites were doing. After it rains, new grass grows. Normally, that grass sucks all the water out of the ground, and then dies. But if the termites kill the grass first — by eating the roots — the water stays in the ground for years.

The termites literally swim in watery sand, sustained by water and whatever organic material is left there, until the next rain and the next round of new annual grass.

And what causes that outer ring of year-round plants? They stick their roots just inside the circle to get water, but not far enough to tempt the termites.

The reason no one figured it out before, Juergens says, is that the termites mostly move about at night and don't build big, noticeable nests.

Juergens says as ecological engineers, these termites are mighty; they create oases where lots of animals can live. And they put dam-building beavers to shame.

"I mean, the beaver is great," he says, "but I think these termites surpass the beaver because of the vast area which is turned into grassland." What would normally be an ephemeral ecosystem, in which annual grasses live briefly after a rain, is turned into permanent grassland, albeit in the shape of rings of perennial grasses encircling bare patches.

Juergens published his discovery in the journal Science, in what may be the only scientific article written with "fairy circles" in the title.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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