In the deserts of south­ern Africa there are thou­sands of round bar­ren patch­es of land called ‘fairy cir­cles’. They reach from 2 to 15 meters in diam­e­ter and occur among the grassy veg­e­ta­tion in Namib­ia. They are also present in Ango­la and South Africa. The cir­cles are con­cen­trat­ed in a group about 160 km inland, extend­ing south from Ango­la. Locat­ed in a remote and inhos­pitable loca­tion, more than a hun­dred miles from the near­est vil­lage, the cir­cles were stud­ied when they were report­ed in 1971. But so far, no con­clu­sive proof of their cause has been found.

desert circles in namibia

Entry relat­ed to place: Africa

We have already writ­ten about crop cir­cles, which have been debat­ed for sev­er­al decades, now we will tell you about a less known, but no less mys­te­ri­ous phe­nom­e­non — mag­ic cir­cles in the desert.

magic circles

Accord­ing to the local Him­ba peo­ple, the cir­cles are caused by a drag­on that lives under the earth­’s crust, whose fiery breath hits the sur­face, burn­ing the veg­e­ta­tion into near­ly per­fect cir­cles. Oth­ers claim the phe­nom­e­non is caused by ants, ter­mites, radioac­tive soil, or tox­ins released by Dama­ra spurge, a poi­so­nous native plant.
circles in the desert
A new study has led to a more like­ly expla­na­tion for mag­ic cir­cles. Ger­man biol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Nor­bert Jür­gens of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ham­burg has dis­cov­ered that the intrigu­ing phe­nom­e­non is actu­al­ly the result of a com­plex envi­ron­men­tal impact on sand by Psam­moter­mes allo­cerus ter­mites.

Sand ter­mite was found in 80–100% of the cir­cles, and in 100% of the new­ly formed cir­cles it was the only insect liv­ing there. In the Namib Desert, it is quite com­mon. Ter­mites cre­ate a mag­ic cir­cle by con­sum­ing veg­e­ta­tion and hid­ing in the soil to cre­ate a ring. The bar­ren cir­cle allows water to seep down through the sandy soil and accu­mu­late here, allow­ing the soil to remain moist even in the dri­est con­di­tions. Grass­es grow on the edges of the cir­cle due to the stored ground­wa­ter that ter­mites bring here, slow­ly increas­ing the size of the cir­cle. Because of this behav­ior, sand ter­mites grow their own sources of food and water, cre­at­ing a local ecosys­tem in a man­ner sim­i­lar to the com­mon beaver.

Wal­ter R. Chinkel, a biol­o­gist at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty who also researched mag­ic cir­cles, chal­lenged Juer­gens’ results, argu­ing that he “made a com­mon sci­en­tif­ic error due to con­fus­ing cor­re­la­tion with cau­sa­tion.” Tschinkel searched for ter­mites in this area but was not suc­cess­ful.

Jur­gens replied that Dr. Chinkel was “look­ing for the wrong ter­mites.” Sand ter­mites are dif­fer­ent from reg­u­lar ter­mites and live much deep­er, with­out cre­at­ing mounds or nests above the ground and mov­ing in a way that does not leave foot­prints in the sand.

The debate as to the cause of the for­ma­tion of cir­cles has been going on for some time, and is like­ly to con­tin­ue in the future. The Him­ba peo­ple, how­ev­er, are care­free. They don’t need any oth­er evi­dence, as the cir­cles are “foot­prints of the gods.”

See also
The most beautiful lakes in Austria

In con­tin­u­a­tion, read also about oth­er attrac­tions in Namib­ia in a sep­a­rate col­lec­tion.