“Fairy circles” dot the desert landscape in the NamibRand Nature Reserve


© Frans Lanting

Mystery surrounds the origin of “Fairy circles”. These bizarre natural grass formations are characteristic of the Namib desert on the Atlantic coast of southern Africa. Ecologists, biologists and botanists have long argued about how these enigmatic bare patches form and give the Namibian grassland its leopard-like spots. Local legends relating how the circles were created by gods only add to the fascination of these arcane patterns.
Rather than magic, however, the answer lies in nature’s amazing ability to adapt. According to recent research, this incredible natural phenomenon is caused by a sophisticated self-management mechanism developed as a result of the delicate balance between cooperation and competition for resources. Distribution on the basis to precise periodic cycles allows the grass to optimise its consumption of resources, including nutrients carried by the tiny animals that populate the soil, especially ants and termites.
It is still not clear how the geometric shapes created by the plants on the surface interact with the patterns formed by the tunnels and nests of these insects. We do know, however, that a habitat structured in this way seems better able to conserve rain water and to continue flourishing throughout extended periods of drought.
A better understanding of the exceptional and spontaneous resilience of these curious ecosystems, which also appear in Australia and other dry regions, might provide us with inspiration and help us to develop new strategies for combating climate change and desertification.

Alessandro Braggion