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