Yulia Karra
January 1

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) may have figured out the key mechanism behind the formation of “fairy circles,” edging closer to resolving the scientific mystery. 

Fairy circles are circular patches of land barren of plants and often encircled by a ring of stimulated growth of vegetation. Fairy circles were initially observed in Namibia and later in other parts of the world with arid climates.  

The phenomenon has fascinated the scientific community for years, with theories ranging from spatial self-organization of plants to pre-existing patterns of termite nests.

The BGU team proposed a new theory that has been so far overlooked by the scientific world. 

They theorize that the mechanism causing fairy circle formation is a combination of phenotypic plasticity – a plant’s ability to change its own traits in response to environmental stresses — at the level of a single plant, and spatial self-organization in vegetation patterns at the level of a plant population.

A study comparing their model predictions with empirical observations of Namibian fairy circles was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal.

Prof. Ehud Meron. Photo Dani Machlis of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Prof. Ehud Meron. Photo Dani Machlis of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

The study, supported by the Israel Science Foundation, was led by Prof. Ehud Meron, his postdoctoral fellows — Jamie Bennett, Bidesh Bera, and Michel Ferré — and his colleagues, Profs. Hezi Yizhaq and Stephan Getzin. Meron recently won an ERC Synergy Grant to study resilience pathways in drylands and other biomes.

Meron said: “This study highlights the importance of considering more elements of ecosystem complexity when addressing how to evade tipping to dysfunctional ecosystem states as warmer and drier climates develop.”

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