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Mystery Behind “Fairy Circles” Of The Namib Desert

Mystery Behind "Fairy Circles" Of The Namib Desert

There can be no valid reason to the enigmatic “fairy circles” which are found in the dry Namib Desert. Orange dirt which looked like large circles where each of them are completely round and surrounded by patches of grass appears suddenly in the barren landscape. With time these patches grew in size and became big enough to accommodate a school bus in them. Then gradually they fade and die similar to a living organism.  The distributions of the patches are so symmetrical that they seem to be drawn by an alien species.

According to the Himba tribes people who inhabit the regions of Northern Namibia for centuries are of the opinion that these patches are footprints of the gods who travelled across this place. Some other fancy fairytales which he tourist guides draw up often speak about the patches as spots created by a poisonous dragon which lies beneath the earth surface.

Mystery Behind "Fairy Circles" Of The Namib DesertThe Himba people live in the Kunene region of northern Namibia. There are between 20,000 and 50,000 Himba people.

Scientists also have not been able to reach a consensus about the reason for the existence of the patches. Few have the opinion that these are created by tiny insects which create their nest by eating the grass while others believe that they are a result of self-organization of plants.

Mystery Behind "Fairy Circles" Of The Namib DesertThe distributions of the patches are so symmetrical that they seem to be drawn by an alien species

An eminent ecologist of the Princeton University, Rob Pringle said, “This is a classic thing in ecology where debates will emerge and go on for decades.  And the resolution after all that time is usually, ‘Well, it’s a little bit of both.’ ”

In a paper published in the journal called Nature, this was the main conclusion given by Pringle and all his coworkers. Pringle believed that these patches were a lesson of ecology, physics and mathematics which were provided by grass blades and groups of bugs. But certain researchers argued that these conclusions drawn by Pringle did not completely describe the origin of these circles.

There was also a theory given by a researcher Norbert Juergen’s, about which many scientists disagreed with. They were skeptical about the fact that bugs could create such elaborate designs throughout miles of desert sand.

Mystery Behind "Fairy Circles" Of The Namib DesertOn of the Namib's mysterious fairy circles shortly after a fire passed through. Via Vernon Swanepoel/flickr

The phenomenon of plant-organization theory proposes that the amount of vegetation present could determine the amount of rainfall which can enter the soil and stay there. When one tuft of grass grows it promotes the growth of another because of the reason that plants are very efficient in holding water. With time these circles provide the optimum way to distribute vegetation across the deserted landscape.

A lead author of Nature magazine and also a Princeton University ecologist, Corina Tarnita explained, “That kind of gives this periodic pattern. This kind of theory can produce a suite of patterns depending on the availability of rainfall.”

“It’s an amazing thing that you can get such clean, beautiful geometric patterns,” Tarnita added. “Such tiny creatures doing their thing very locally every day end up producing these unbelievable large-scale patterns. … To me, it’s mind-boggling that nature can do that.”

Mystery Behind "Fairy Circles" Of The Namib DesertOne of the oldest and largest deserts, the Namib stretches inland from the Atlantic Ocean, covering large swathes of Namibia and parts of Angola and South Africa. This arid hotspot surprisingly supports a diverse number of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

But recently a new model came up with certain new surprises. In a study, Pringle and Tarnita teamed up with a chemistry professor of Princeton University called Salvatore Torquato, who is an expert in finding physics  behind strange and weird patterns which occur in nature. He said, “The thing that immediately caught my eye about what they had was it seemed to fall into an exotic type of patterning I call hyperuniformity.”

“You realize that you can find these patterns at many different scales,” Tarnita also said. “Anywhere from tiny microbial colonies to animal coats to the scale of ecosystems. You find compelling patterns and, many times, the same kinds of patterns, the same motifs. … It shows you how many ways nature has managed to come to the same conclusion.”

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