The Namib desert (which stretches through Angola, Namibia, and South Africa) holds a scientific puzzle that has baffled scientists around the world for decades. Scattered throughout the desert are stretches of vegetation, laced with seemingly random patches of bare circles. From a satellite view, it appears as though countless flying saucers landed among the shrubbery, leaving only bare terrain below. These patches, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres and range from 3 to 41 metres in diameter, are referred to as ‘fairy circles’. They receive their name from local folklore. According to Himba tradition, these mysterious markings were caused by gods walking across the barren soil. Another local legend states that a mythical dragon lives below the desert, and its poisonous breath kills certain vegetation above the ground.
Outside of local legend, scientists from all around the world have been putting forth their own explanations for fairy circles since the 1970s. Surprisingly, even to this day, the scientific community is still unsure of what exactly causes them. One common theory is that a certain species of termite lives below the soil, killing off plants in certain areas of the desert. Another popular theory is that certain parts of the desert contain more water than others, and the surrounding plants suck all the water from water-rich areas, leaving large swaths of the desert without vegetation. Others have suggested extraterrestrial interference, or that these are the favorite resting spot of Namibia’s national animal, the oryx. Despite all the current theories, the world may never know the true secret behind the Namib Desert’s fairy circles.
By Tre Hunt
(Image: Science Friday)