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Barren desert 'fairy circles' caused by … rain?

By Stephanie Pappas
February 26, 2019, 12:21:42 PM EST

rain circles

The Australian fairy circles (seen from above) form an additional source of water in this arid region, because the rainwater flows toward the grasses on the edge. Credit: Stephan Getzin

Unusual bare circles in the grasslands of Australia and the Namib Desert called "fairy circles" aren't the work of termites, new research suggests.

Fairy circles are a long-standing mystery. Some scientists have argued that they mark termite nests or are the result of plants competing for scarce resources. Some say that a combination of termite and plant activity resulted in the odd splotches. But now, a new study suggests that the circles aren't the result of anything living. Rather, they're a result of weathering caused by heavy rainfall and evaporation.

Termites sometimes nest within fairy circles, study researcher Stephan Getzin of the University of Göttingen in Germany said in a statement. But there is no evidence that the termites are actually creating the bare patches.

Mapping the circles

Getzin and his colleagues focused on the fairy circles in the Australian desert near the town of Newman. They used drones to visualize the circles from above and excavated samples from 48 separate fairy circles spread over 7.4 miles (12 kilometers). They compared the aerial photos of the fairy circles with bird's-eye views of known harvester termite nests.

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