fairy circles fairy circles Scientists thought they'd figured out what makes these mysterious circles in the African grasslands ... Now they're rethinking. (Photo: Mark Dumbleton/Shutterstock)

Namibia's fairy circle mystery continues

Can two theories smashed together finally tell us the truth about these mysterious circles in the African grasslands?

If you're a conspiracy theorist, Namibian tribesperson, scientist or magical creature, you may know about fairy circles. They're 20-foot-long barren circles in the African grasslands, and they look really weird and alien. Tribespeople in the region have long told stories about why these circles exist, one of the most popular being that fairies make them, or that they're "footprints of the gods."

Scientists weren't too into the fairy hypothesis, and they set out to crack the mystery. A year ago, we wrote about how a group of Israeli and German scientists discovered that it was all about water. Plants sought moisture, went the theory, and they sucked the water out of circular areas, creating barren gaps here and there. The mystery had been solved ... hadn't it?

Apparently not. A new group of scientists from Princeton University in New Jersey, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, University of Strathclyde in Scotland, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife Services in Idaho recently conducted their own study, and they've got a new explanation: water AND termites.

Efrat ShefferEfrat Sheffer, a plant scientist at Hebrew University who worked on the study. (Photo: Courtesy of Efrat Sheffer)

This new theory is actually kind of a combination of previous competing theories. Water theory + termite theory = fairy circles (We here at From the Grapevine are all about breaking down the real math for science stories.). It goes something like this:

When termites build nests, they break down nutrients in the ground and make the soil more fertile and better able to hold water. This makes the whole area great for plant growth. But there's a catch: when termites build nests, they create a series of underground tunnels that make it hard for plants to put down roots. So plants end up growing in a circle around the termite nests.

Mystery solved ... for now. (Little bells of fairy laughter jingle from a shadowy corner in the From the Grapevine offices.)

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