'Fairy circles' examined in Australia

Mar 16, 2016, 4:58 PM EDT
Burned fairy circle. (Source: Vernon Swanepoel/flickr)
Burned fairy circle. (Source: Vernon Swanepoel/flickr)
“Fairy circles” are patches of sand surrounded by grass found in the Namib desert in Namibia, but now they have been discovered in Australia as well. The patches are associated with many myths, and scientists are now able to get more insight into how they form. The New York Times reports:
Scientists have been interested in fairy circles since the 1970s, but have not been able to agree on what causes the patterns to form. Researchers generally fall into two groups — team termite and team water competition — but there are other hypotheses as well, including one involving noxious gases.
Dr. [Stephan] Getzin, like others on team water competition, explains the circles through pattern-formation theory, a model for understanding the way nature organizes itself. The theory was first developed not by biologists, but by the mathematician Alan Turing. In the 1990s, ecologists and physicists realized it could be tweaked to explain some vegetation patterns as well. In harsh habitats where plants compete for nutrients and water, the new theory predicts that, as weaker plants die and stronger ones grow larger, vegetation will self-organize into patterns ranging from gaps to spots to labyrinths.
It’s not gods, scientists said Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it’s not dragons or bugs.
It’s the plants themselves. They’ve self-organized.
This is not an entirely new theory. South African biologist Michael Cramer suggested it in a paper in 2013, and a year later the lead author of the PNAS study, Stephan Getzin, conducted his own analysis of aerial images of the Namibian circles to develop a computer model that could explain how plants — which lack central nervous systems, and, you know, an understanding of the notion “circle” — could coordinate themselves in this way.
"There have been a lot of interesting mythological explanations for the circles by locals in Namibia," Getzin told ABC News today. "Some people thought fairies danced in a circle overnight, while others thought they could be the footsteps of God."