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The Biological Underpinnings of Namib Desert Fairy Circles

Science  29 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6127, pp. 1618-1621
DOI: 10.1126/science.1222999

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Fairies? No, Termites!

Fairy circles consist of circles of perennial vegetation that grow within otherwise mostly barren desert habitat on the southwest coast of Africa. Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain the creation and maintenance of fairy circles. Using long-term data collected on the distribution and physical and biological components of these features, Juergens (p. 1618) found that the circles are generated by the actions of the sand termite, which removes vegetation produced following intermittent rains. Once generated, the circles collect water, which sustains the growth of perennial vegetation at the edges of the circles, allowing for long-term persistence of the termites.

Abstract

The sand termite Psammotermes allocerus generates local ecosystems, so-called fairy circles, through removal of short-lived vegetation that appears after rain, leaving circular barren patches. Because of rapid percolation and lack of evapotranspiration, water is retained within the circles. This process results in the formation of rings of perennial vegetation that facilitate termite survival and locally increase biodiversity. This termite-generated ecosystem persists through prolonged droughts lasting many decades.

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