Satellites Show Mysterious Fairy Circles in More Parts of the World

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Researchers say that the rings of vegetation, which had mostly been studied in Namibia and Australia, may exist in 15 countries.

In satellite imagery, researchers identified potential fairy circles in countries like Kazakhstan, Madagascar and Niger.CreditCredit...Guirado et al.

Fairy circles inspire wonder in viewers and fuel contention among experts. For decades, scientists have hotly debated the origin of the strange, polka-dot-like patterns of barren earth, which have been found in the Namib Desert, stretching from Angola to northern South Africa. Some researchers also say they occur in the Australian outback.

Now, there’s something new to argue about: To what extent are fairy circles found around the world?

Findings based on satellite imagery published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raise the possibility that fairy circles are significantly more widespread, occurring in up to 263 sites in 15 countries across three continents.

“We discovered fairy circle locations in many other places that we didn’t know existed before, because most of the work on this topic has been carried out in just two countries, Namibia and Australia,” said Fernando Maestre, an ecologist at the University of Alicante in Spain and an author of the study.

Other researchers who have worked on fairy circles say that until field work is performed, it remains to be seen whether any of the newly identified circular, bare patches are true fairy circles.

“In all arid regions of the world various types of bare patches exist, which are caused by different processes,” said Norbert Jürgens, an emeritus ecologist at the University of Hamburg, who was not involved in the research.

Until this study, Dr. Maestre and his colleagues were not part of the sometimes fractious fraternity of fairy circle researchers. They got sucked into the mystery when Emilio Guirado, a data scientist also at the University of Alicante and one of the study’s authors, spotted something strange on Google Earth: patterns in Niger that appeared to be fairy circles. He wondered whether they might exist in other dryland habitats.

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