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Australia Fairy Circles High on Agenda of Scientists Into Grass

Image: Australia Fairy Circles High on Agenda of Scientists Into Grass
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Thousands of fairy circles dot the Australian Outback.

By    |   Wednesday, 16 Mar 2016 11:21 AM

Australia fairy circles are serious business to scientists who are into grass, and they say the ones in the Outback are providing clues to similar grass formations in Africa's Namib Desert.

Scientists previously speculated that termites caused the honeycombed patches of bare earth by eating the roots of grass, the BBC reported, but similar grass circles in Australia in an absence of termites suggest otherwise. The plants likely arranged themselves in that pattern to compete for scare water supplies, according to the fairy circles study released in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Vegetation gap patterns in arid grasslands, such as the ‘fairy circles’ of Namibia, are one of nature’s greatest mysteries and subject to a lively debate on their origin,” the study said, noting that the formations are likely “more common in remote drylands than is currently known.”

The African fairy circles have been attributed to everything from ostriches, to toxic plants and gases, to the footprints of gods, and UFOs, the BBC said.

Environmental scientist Bronwyn Bell discovered Australia’s grass circles, which she called “chicken pox,” and contacted Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, who had studied the African fairy circles. He called the find “a missing link in the debate about the origin of Namibian fairy circles,” the BBC said, but stopped short of declaring the mystery solved.

"I would say they are still a mystery because the brand new discovery needs to be further investigated. The same holds for the Namibian fairy circles. Science works generally pretty slowly," Getzin said.

The fairy circles in the two countries look similar but have differences, The New York Times reported. The African circles acts as sandy troughs storing moisture, whereas the Australian circles are dry and hard. In both cases, water poured into the circle flowed to the grass on the edges.

“The mechanism of water transport is different, but the function of the fairy circles is the same,” Getzin said, according to the Times.

Still, some scientists, including Norbert Jurgens, an ecologist at the University of Hamburg, remain skeptical. Jurgens said that the clay islands in the Australia fairy circles could have resulted from the buildup of termite nests over time.

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Australia fairy circles are serious business to academics who are into grass, and they say the ones in the Outback are providing clues to similar grass formations in Africa's Namib Desert.
australia, fairy, circles
389
2016-21-16
Wednesday, 16 Mar 2016 11:21 AM
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