Deep in the Australian outback, circular, grass-ringed patches of earth stretch for several hundred square kilometers across the red, ancient soil. Known as ‘fairy circles’, these round patterns had previously only been seen in the dry grasslands of Namibia, and were thought to be the only example anywhere in the world.
Fairy circles are circular patches of land, measuring anywhere from between seven to 50 feet (2 to 15 meters) in diameter. They’re exceptionally rare, but the chance discovery of these mysterious features near Newman in Western Australia suggests it’s a natural phenomenon that’s not exclusive to one particular place on Earth. The new discovery could help resolve the long-standing mystery of how they form.
How the circles came to be is the source of much debate for around a century, with African Bushmen believing they are the footprints of the gods or a dragon lives under the Earth and breathes bubbles. However modern theories include termites being behind the circles or poisonous vegetation or radioactive contamination killing off the plant life. But all of these hypothesis have been recently dismissed.
The latest study suggests that the gaps are caused by plants who organize themselves based on the amount of water available. Getzin actually came up with this theory a couple of years ago, but the new discovery strengthens his hypothesis. The amount of water available at the transition points between deserts and grasslands aren’t enough to sustain continuous vegetation cover— so the plants are forced to compete for water, and organize themselves accordingly, forming the distinct pattern.
The researchers used fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis along with mathematical modelling to map the landscape and understand the exciting natural occurrence.
What’s most exciting is that the research suggests there could be other fairy circles around the world that we’re yet to find – and in today’s world of google maps and satellite images, it’s nice to know there’s still a little mystery left on the planet.