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Fairy Rings and Fairy Circles

June 20, 2014

The idea that there are small, intelligent, magical creatures inhabiting our woodlands has been with us throughout history. The Greeks had their nymphs (νυμφη), who resembled our modern fairies except for their lack of wings. The nymphs make an appearance in the memorable onomatopoeic passage in Vergil's Aeneid, Book IV, ll. 165-72, "summoque ulularunt vertice nymphae,"[1-2] in which they were howling in frenzy at what was happening in an African cave during a thunderstorm.

What was happening was some lovemaking between Aeneas, founder of Rome, hero of the Trojan War, and Dido, queen of Carthage. As an example that gender inequality has deep roots, it was permissible for Aeneas to sow some wild oats, but Dido's shame over this event, coupled with Aeneas' departure, caused her suicide.

After the invention of photography, people were less inclined to believe in folk tales; instead, everyone wanted "photographic evidence." In the case of fairies, that photographic evidence was the 1917 photograph of the Cottingley Fairies, as shown below. To people accustomed to today's photoshopped images, this photograph is obviously faked, but Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a spiritualist, thought that it was genuine. This, and similar photographs, were staged with cardboard cutouts of fairies.

The Cottingley Fairies, 1917

The Cottingley Fairies

(Photograph by Kristian Nordestgaard of a news article in The Strand Magazine, 1920, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Disney successfully commercialized fairies in its depiction of Tinker Bell, and girls are now outfitting themselves with wings, as fairies have hit the cable television channels in a big way. Just as there are things named nymphs in biology, there are quite a few things named after fairies. There are fairy chess pieces; the Fairy Tern and its avian cousin, the Fairy Warbler; fairy shrimp; fairy rings, and fairy circles.

Fairy rings are naturally occurring rings of mushrooms, typically several yards in diameter. In many cases, the ring will be incomplete, instead forming an arc. These may occur in association with a tree, as shown in the photograph, or exist in isolation. The reason for circle forming is unclear, but it's recognized that the cause is below ground, where fungal mycelium are present.

Fairy ring near Buchenberg, Bavaria, Germany

Fairy ring near Buchenberg, Bavaria, Germany.

The mushrooms are Clitocybe nebularis.

(Photo by Josimda, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Shakespeare, who knew how to capture the attention of his audience through incorporation of popular mythology, wrote about fairy circles in The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1,
"...You demy-Puppets, that
By Moone-shine doe the greene sowre Ringlets make,
Whereof the Ewe not bites: and you, whose pastime
Is to make midnight-Mushrumps, that reioyce
To heare the solemne Curfewe..."[3]

Similar to fairy rings, but even more curious, are fairy circles. These are circular patches of barren ground up to about fifty feet in diameter in an otherwise lush grassland (see photographs, below). These occur in the African countries of Namibia, Angola and South Africa. Unlike fairy rings, which are persistent and maintain the same dimension, fairy circles evolve. They grow in diameter and then finally disappear, being filled in with the surrounding grass species. Their origin remains unknown, even after thirty years of research.[4]

Fairy circles in the Marienfluss Valley, Namibia

Fairy circles in the Marienfluss Valley, Namibia. The average diameter of fairy circles in that region is about six meters. (left image by Thorsten Becker and right image by Stephan Getzin, via Wikimedia Commons.)

An international team of scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ, Leipzig, Germany), the University of Göttingen (Göttingen, Germany), Ben-Gurion University (Beer Sheva, Israel), the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center (Tamar Regional Council, Israel), and ISAC-CNR (Torino, Italy) has taken a different approach to identifying the cause of these fairy circles. They've used image analysis of aerial photographs to examine the spatial patterns of the fairy circles, which number in the millions in the Namib Desert.[4-5]

Stephan Getzin, an author of the study from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, says that "although scientists have been trying to answer this question for decades, their mystery remains as yet unresolved," the principal reason being that no one has observed the formation and evolution of these fairy circles.[5] The most popular theory has been that they are caused by termites that eat the grass roots. Another theory is that gas emission from processes below ground cause the disappearance of vegetation.[5]

An article published in Science in 2013 concluded that the sand termite, Psammotermes allocerus, was responsible, since this species was present at all the fairy circles investigated.[6-7] However, termite grazing actually resulting in circles was not observed.[5] One other theory of fairy circle formation is based on the observation that the circles appear in transition regions between grassland and desert. At such places, vegetation would compete for water resources, and this could lead to bare patches with lush peripheral grass rings.[5]

The present study did a pattern analysis of the different spatial features of the fairy circles and compared this to what would be expected from the various generation hypotheses.[4,5] The analysis was done on representative 25-hectare aerial images of northwest Namibia with the goal of answering the following questions.[4,5]
• Are they arranged and positioned by chance?
• Are there signs or distinguishable patterns of clustering in certain locations?
• Do the fairy circles maintain a minimum distance to their nearest neighbors?

A regular and homogeneous distribution pattern across large areas was detected by the computer analysis, although it was not visible by eye.[5] Says Getzin, "There must be particularly strong regulating forces at work".[5] The pattern was characterized by Voronoi cells, mostly with six corners, and negative correlations in size up to a distance of 13 meters.[4] This finding effectively disproves the termite and underground gas theories.[4,5]

The most probable cause for the fairy circles is water-resource competition among plants and vegetation, which would create the observed distribution.[4,5] As confirmation, the research team developed a mathematical model of how such competition would occur. The model generated spatial patterns like those observed.[4,5]


  1. Virgil's Aeneid, Latin text, Project Gutenberg.
  2. John Dryden, Virgil's Aeneid, English translation, Project Gutenberg.
  3. William Shakespeare, "The Tempest," from the first folio, Project Gutenberg.
  4. Stephan Getzin, Kerstin Wiegand, Thorsten Wiegand, Hezi Yizhaq, Jost von Hardenberg and Ehud Meron, "Adopting a spatially explicit perspective to study the mysterious fairy circles of Namibia," Ecography (May 20, 2014), doi: 10.1111/ecog.00911.
  5. Fairy circles apparently not created by termites after all, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research Press release, May 20, 2014.
  6. Norbert Juergens, "The Biological Underpinnings of Namib Desert Fairy Circles," Science, vol. 339, no. 6127 (March 29, 2013), pp. 1618-1621.
  7. Jonathan Amos, "Termites 'engineer fairy circles'," BBC News, March 28. 2013.

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