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African ‘Fairy Circles’ May Be Chewed by Hungry Termites

Mysterious African ‘Fairy Circles’ Made by Hungry Termites
An aerial view of tracks of Oryx antelopes crossing fairy circles in an inter dune pan in Namibrand, Namibia. Source: Norbert Juergens via Bloomberg

March 28 (Bloomberg) -- Mysterious bare spots dubbed “fairy circles” that have been long observed in the African grasslands are caused by termites, a scientist suggests.

The Psammotermes allocerus termite that lives in the sandy soil beneath the circles kill the grass by chewing its roots, according to a study in the journal Science. By clearing the grass, the termites not only feast, they also allow water to be retained in the soil during the dry season.

The circles also contribute to a larger natural advantage. They allow other species, including geckos, aardvarks, bat-eared foxes and spiders to easily find and feed on the termites, said Norbert Juergens, a scientist at the University of Hamburg in Germany who is the study’s lead author.

The circles are “like oases in the desert,” Juergens wrote in the journal article. They are found in the Namib Desert, which runs from mid-Angola to northwestern South Africa, according to the study.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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