Africa’s desert “fairy rings” become a story of water and life

Fairy circles in Namibia.
Fairy circles in Namibia.

New research explains that sand termites (Psammotermes allocerus) are the engineers of fairy circles which stipple deserts thru Angola, Namibia into South Africa. These circles can grow to up to 40 feet across. For years, the origins of these circular, barren areas have baffled scientists and visiting tourists. The local Himba tribal people believe that they are footprints of their god,”Mukuru.” Others blame a mythical dragon’s poisonous breath for killing these circles of vegetation.

Taking some of the fun out of this up-til-now-unsolved mystery, a German scientist has just claimed that this clandestine and underground species of termites munch at grass roots, clearing patches of vegetation. Thus the soil becomes more porous and better able to absorb and retain the regions much needed rainfall.  In what has become a fascinating NWNL / Sherlock Holmes-type of investigation, scientists now think the water collects underground nourishing surrounding perennial grasses, forming a ring and providing food for the termites as well as attracting other organisms.

According to this current wild desert theory, termites turn “predominantly ephemeral life into landscapes dominated by species-rich perennial grassland,” an example of fauna allowing flora to absorb water even in the most arid, drought conditions. (See recent articles on this in National Geographic and The NY Times.)

This scientific explanation of the “fairy ring’s” phenomenon is one of nature’s most extreme examples of  “no water – no life” – and perhaps even more intriguing than ancient tribal explanations about a dragon’s breath.

Namibia: Kaokoland, Himba Tribe woman weaving w/ children

One thought on “Africa’s desert “fairy rings” become a story of water and life

  1. I tried to post a comment but it would only go thru wp or twitter or Fb so it declined me. Interesting story although in the photo it looks more like fairy lines rather than circles.

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