The Namib Rand Nature Reserve, located in southwest Namibia, is home to literally thousands of mysterious spots known as fairy circles.
The circles take the form of round clearings in the red, sandy soil surrounded by tall rings of grass. The smallest rings are about 6.5 feet (2 meters) in diameter, and the largest can reach nearly 40 feet (12 meters) across. They seem to spring up at nearly full size, although some appear to grow a little after they emerge. Eventually, however, they all vanish back into the desert landscape as plants move back into the bare ground, leaving slightly indented areas behind.
No one knows how or why they form, but a new study by biologist Walter Tschinkel of Florida State University has shed some light on how long they last. It seems that the small ones last around 24 years while the big ones can remain for as long as 75 years. Tschinkel estimates that most probably exist for around 30 to 60 years.
Tschinkel has ruled out a few theories about why the circles form. He originally thought they might have marked nests of harvester termites, but no nests were found. The soil inside the circles is not toxic, and there are no obvious differences in soil quality in soil samples from inside and outside the circles.
Unlike more traditional fairy rings which form in areas with high moisture and generally caused by fungi, Namibia’s circles form only on sandy soil, but not on dunes or alluvial fans which are formed by water.
Over the last ten years, the Namib Rand Nature Reserve has found a novel way to raise funds with these fairy rings. They sell sponsorships to the circles, whose GPS coordinates are recorded while each sponsored circle is marked with a ceramic plaque.
It is not likely that the mystery of these fairy circles will be solved any time soon. They are located more than 110 miles (180 kilometers) from the nearest village in an arid grassland populated by leopards, ostriches, springbock and other animals. With no money to fund studies, it is not likely that researchers will be willing to spend a great deal of time investigating this phenomenon.
If you’re interested in seeing photographs of these mysterious fairy rings, go here