Skip to comments.'Fairy Circles' Of Africa Baffle Scientists
Posted on 05/09/2004 6:13:17 PM PDT by blam
'Fairy circles' of Africa baffle scientists
Twenty-five years of research fail to find the cause of a mysterious natural phenomenon, reports Tim Butcher at Wolwedans Camp
One of Africa's most mysterious natural phenomena still cannot be explained despite 25 years of research, scientists admitted yesterday.
Rings known as "fairy circles" that pockmark vast areas of desert in Namibia and South Africa have baffled botanists from the University of Pretoria and the Polytechnic of Namibia.
They have ruled out termite activity, poisoning from toxic indigenous plants, contamination from radioactive minerals and even ostrich dust baths as possible causes.
"At this stage I suppose we could say that fairies are as good an explanation as any," Gretel van Rooyen, professor of botany at Pretoria, told The Telegraph.
The findings will come as a relief to the region's bushmen who have traditionally attributed magical, spiritual powers to these desert rings.
Some tribes say each marks the grave of a bushman killed in clashes with colonialists, both black and white, who over the centuries have wiped out their hunter-gatherer, nomadic lifestyle.
And there is something other-worldly about the circles at Wolwedans desert camp in Namibia, perhaps the best place to see the phenomenon. The symmetrical divots in the sand stretch as far as the eye can see across vast, open plains like a giant terrestrial form of chickenpox or, as one Austrian holidaymaker put it, like splash marks from giant raindrops.
Such figurative thoughts were far from the minds of Prof van Rooyen and her team when they began to analyse the circles, which are to be found about 100 miles inland, in a band stretching 1,500 miles south from Angola. The territory is among the most remote and inhospitable on the planet which may explain why so little scientific research had been done on the rings.
In 1978 a long-term project was started when researchers hammered metal stakes into the centre of numerous circles. It had always been assumed the circles moved and the stakes would show how far and in what direction.
When the researchers eventually returned to the test circles after 22 years, they found they had not moved an inch.
"That showed these things are not dynamic and so we then focused on what characteristics of the desert soil might explain less growth in some places and good growth in others," Prof van Rooyen said.
"But one by one we tested the theories and one by one they were disproved."
Received wisdom was that termites caused the circles, foraging from underground nests the same distance and keeping a patch of desert clear of any new growth.
But the scientists showed that the right foraging habits of the only termites in the region did not fit this theory.
Samples of soil from the circles were then taken back to Pretoria for analysis. "We did all the basic soil tests for nutrients and minerals but found no explanation," Prof van Rooyen said.
The findings of her team's research was published in a 19-page article in The Journal of Arid Environments.
"What we need to do now is more research on the detailed breakdown of that soil using a mass spectrometer to find out what is different about that soil, she said.
"Until that research is completed in a few more years, the fairies remain the best explanation for this African quirk of nature."
Copyright Thorsten Becker
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.