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Termites cause strange plant circles in African desert

Odd plant circles, thought to be created by fairies according to legend, are in fact created by termites, according to new research by Norbert Jürgens of the University of Hamburg.

The deserts of Namibia have a strange phenomenon; an African version of the crop circle. So called “fairy rings” are circular growths of grass which dot the arid and dry landscape from Angola to South Africa. Their origins have never been explained, and in mythology, they are, as their name implies, thought to be caused by fairies.

However, now a German scientist named Norbert Jürgens from the University of Hamburg, has discovered how they are actually created. After 40 trips back and forth to study water distribution and life around the rings, Jürgens concludes that termites are to blame.


Termites: The beavers of the insect world


Though hundreds of species of animals make use of the rings as a home, the sand termite is the only one which exists throughout the entire range of the fairy rings’ distribution, as he reports in the March 29 issue of Science.


The termites create the circles when they eat the roots of grass growing in the desert. This kills the grass and creates a bald spot; the center of the ring. The soil beneath the bald spot remains moist as compared to the surrounding area, because there are no plants leeching the water out of it. This appeals to the moisture loving termites. More importantly, it creates soil with enough moisture for grass to survive in a lush ring around it, where the climate would otherwise be too harsh to support that amount of life.

David F.
A grad student in experimental physics, David is fascinated by science, space and technology. When not buried in lecture books, he enjoys movies, gaming and mountainbiking

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