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Sand termites tied to Africa's mysterious 'fairy circles'

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
March 30th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Called "fairy circles," barren reddish spots wind their way through a narrow belt of desert stretching from Angola through Namibia into northern South Africa. Lots of folklore has arisen out of the phenomenon. The previously unexplained condition found in Africa is now being ascribed by scientists to a pesky breed of termite.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Current research may have found a credible explanation for the fairy circles. Scientists say that a particular species of sand termites, called Psammotermes allocerus, a responsible for the phenomenon. 

Scientist Norbert Juergens, a professor of ecology at the University of Hamburg reported that these industrious termites were behind making much of their desert home an oasis of permanent grassland.

Juergens says that these termites "match the beaver with regard to intensity of environmental change, but surpass it with regard to the spatial dimension of their impact.

"P. allocerus turns wide desert regions of predominately ephemeral life into landscapes dominated by species-rich perennial grassland supporting uninterrupted perennial life even during dry seasons and drought years."
 
The reddish barren spots, thousands of them, are called fairy circles, the name itself an invitation to try to solve the mystery of their origins. For no obvious reason, the round patches of sandy soil interrupt the arid grassland, like a spreading blight on the land.

Biologist Walter R. Tschinkel with Florida State University published an analysis of aerial and satellite photography and other research to describe the number, size and dynamics of these formations. Some are as small as six feet in diameter and never grow much bigger, with the largest ones can be at least 40 feet across. It was estimated that the smaller circles have average life spans of 24 years, the larger ones as much as 75 years.

However -- Tschinkel said he was unconvinced that the termites are the cause of the circles. He said the paper by Dr. Juergens "has made the common scientific error of confusing correlation (even very strong correlation) with causation."

Fanciful explanations for the circles in the past have included the native Himba people, who lived in the region, said they were made by their "original ancestor, Mukuru," or the "footprints of the gods." Yet another story blames a mythical dragon that lives in a crack deep under the earth, whose poisonous breath kills vegetation to create the circles.

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