African Fairy Circles Caused By Termites?

Mysterious desert feature may have been chewed into creation

Caty Enders

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A new study may have cracked the mystery of thousands of so-called “fairy circles” that cover a swath of desert from Angola into northern South Africa. The round patches of sand in the middle of the grassland, some as large as 40 feet wide, may have been caused by termites living deep beneath the surface, according to the New York Times.

Writing in the journal Science, professor Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg said the termite might “match the beaver with regard to intensity of environmental change, but surpass it with regard to the spatial dimension of their impact.” Though insects might seem a stretch, it’s a no more implausible than the explanation given by local legen:

To the Himba people who live in the region, however, there is nothing to explain. That’s just how it is, they tell anthropologists; the circles were made by their “original ancestor, Mukuru,” or more poetically, they are “footprints of the gods.” A just-so story blames a mythical dragon that lives in a crack deep under the earth. The dragon’s poisonous breath kills vegetation to create the circles. Trouble is, some scientists point out, the bad-breath hypothesis apparently originated with fanciful tour guides.

But you can see why termites might not immediately spring to mind:

Fairy circles in Namibia. See the original image at

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