Living With Fairy Circles

For years, the creators of the Fairy Circles visible in the deserts of Namibia have remained a mystery. Recently, the culprit has been identified by Norbert Juergens and is reported in the Journal, Science*. The sand termite, Psammotermes allocerus, creates the circles by removing all the grass plants in a circle around the nest. This modifies the environment in ways that benefit the termites and other species.

The roots of the grass pull water to the surface and the water evaporates. In areas where the termite is not present, the landscape is dry and species diversity is low. Where the termite is present, the grass is clipped at the roots creating a bare spot. After a rain, the water remains trapped in the soil rather than transpired into the air by grass. Thus the “Fairy Circles” are moist oases in the middle of the desert and attractive to a variety of plant and animal species.

Termite “Fairy Circles, Namibrand, Namibia
Image:Norbert Juergens

Millions of termites working together, each individual a fraction of the size of a human, are capable of accomplishing impressive environmental engineering feats.

*Norbert Juergens. “The Biological Underpinnings of Namib Desert Fairy Circles.” Science 29 March 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6127 pp. 1618-1621
DOI: 10.1126/science.1222999

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
This entry was posted in behavior, Biomaterials, by jjneal, Environment, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Living With Fairy Circles

  1. biobabbler says:

    And, I’d like to add, they accomplish this feat without the use of toxic chemicals or dozers. Pretty impressive! =) Great summary.

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