Scientist Says Sand Termites Behind Desert Fairy Circles

Posted on March 30, 2013

Fairy Circles at Marienfluss Valley Kaokoveld Namibia


German scientist Norbert Juergens, from the University of Hamburg, believes fairy circles in the Namibian desert are likely created by a sand termite named Psammotermes. Juergens discovered that Psammotermes is the only organism constantly found in the earliest stages of fairy circles.

Juergens found that Psammotermes feed on the roots of grasses. The termites kill all the grasses within the fairy circle by eating the roots. Juergens says the lack of grasses means there is no transpiration occurring - plants are not evaporating the water. This enables rain water to get stored in the depths of the sandy soil, where it is sheltered from evaporation. This soil water supply then helps plants grow at the margins of the fairy circle. It also helps the termites survive the dry season.

Fairy Circle at Giribesvlakte Namibia


Juergens compares the sand termite desert behavior to what beavers can do in rivers. He told BBC News, "We all admire the beaver for the way it can turn a linear river into a lake with a dam, but the termites turning the desert into a pattern of oases that allow permanent life even in drought periods for hundreds of years - that's much more fascinating."

Juergens' paper, "The Biological Underpinnings of Namib Desert Fairy Circles," was published here in Science magazine.

Photos: N. Juergens