Kevin Sanders
Kevin Sanders

Unusual 'Fairy Circles' Found Outside Africa for the First Time

Kevin Sanders
Kevin Sanders

Strange, circular bald spots called "fairy circles" have been found in Australia, which marks the first time the phenomenon has been seen outside of Africa. Researchers say soil and plants created the circles themselves, and the theory of these origins has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fairy circles are open spots of naked earth in areas otherwise covered with vegetation. When they appear, they appear in droves, and they’re typically pretty big; the circles in Namibia range from 7 to almost 50 feet in diameter apiece. From the air, they look like leopard spots on the landscape. (Their unusual appearance may even trigger trypophobia in some observers.)

Where do fairy circles come from? That depends on whom you ask. Two culprits are most commonly suggested: bugs and gas. The bug theorists say the spots are areas where the tiny bites of ants and termites have killed the grass. As evidence, they point to the fact that Africa’s fairy circles are indeed all located by termite and ant colonies. Other scientists say the spots are the product of lots of carbon monoxide leaks. The gas rises out of the Earth’s crust, they say, killing all the vegetation it touches.

But study author and fairy circle expert Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research doesn’t buy either of these theories. He’s a believer in the self-organizing plants theory, which says that, under certain conditions, plants gravitate toward resources.

“Water is limited, and because water is limited it cannot sustain a continuous vegetation coverage,” he told Smithsonian. “So we have gaps and other patterns like labyrinths and stripes or even spots.” The self-organizing theory met with resistance for a long time. Some scientists said it wasn’t even possible. If such a thing could happen, they argued, why weren’t there fairy circles in places other than Africa?

In 2014, shortly after publishing a paper on Namibia’s circles, Getzin got an email and a photo from Bronwyn Bell, an environmental manager for a mining company. Bell had read Getzin’s paper and was sure she had seen something similar nearby. Getzin was astonished. “We couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The Namibia fairy circles are supposed to be the only ones in the world.”

Getzin assembled a team of colleagues and headed to Australia. They took soil samples, recorded detailed measurements, and snapped photos from the ground and in the air. They ran computer simulations and image analysis, looking all the while for some pattern or evidence.

Image Credit: Stephan Getzin

They found that the Australian fairy circles were identical in appearance to their Namibian counterparts, but there were some interesting differences.

For one, there were almost no ants or termites to be found. Cryptic sand termites, the prime Namibian termite suspects, don’t even exist in Australia, Getzin said in a press statement. “And the [insects] we did find have a completely different distribution pattern to the fairy circles." So much for the bug theory.

Getzin and his colleagues found that the Australian soil literally forced the plants out. In Western Australia’s intense sunlight, any earth not covered with vegetation is more or less cooked, and a hard crust forms on top. The baked earth is so hard, rain can’t get in—and no rain means no plants. It's a self-perpetuating cycle that Getzin says could explain the spots.

Smithsonian explains further:

Getzin and his team suggest that when it rains, water pools to the edges of any established gaps in vegetation, straight to the waiting roots of the plants on the gap’s edge. Those edge plants then grow bigger and put down more roots to collect even more water. That means these plants are pulling resources away from their neighbors, limiting their growth and driving the circular pattern of boom and bust.

"In Namibia, the sandy soils of the fairy circles are much more permeable and precipitation can drain away with ease," Getzin said. "The details of this mechanism are different to that in Australia, but it produces the same vegetation pattern because both systems of gaps are triggered by the same instability."

His theory bolstered, Getzin intends next to begin a worldwide search for other fairy circles.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Pop Culture
What Would It Cost to Operate a Real Jurassic Park?
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

As the Jurassic Park franchise has demonstrated, trapping prehistoric monsters on an island with bite-sized tourists may not be the smartest idea (record-breaking box office numbers aside). On top of the safety concerns, the cost of running a Jurassic Park would raise its own set of pretty pricey issues. Energy supplier E.ON recently collaborated with physicists from Imperial College London to calculate how much energy the fictional attraction would eat up in the real world.

The infographic below borrows elements that appear in both the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films. One of the most costly features in the park would be the aquarium for holding the massive marine reptiles. To keep the water heated and hospitable year-round, the park would need to pay an energy bill of close to $3 million a year.

Maintaining a pterosaur aviary would be an even more expensive endeavor. To come up with this cost, the researchers looked at the yearly amount of energy consumed by the Eden Project, a massive biome complex in the UK. Using that data, they concluded that a structure built to hold winged creatures bigger than any bird alive today would add up to $6.6 million a year in energy costs.

Other facilities they envisioned for the island include an egg incubator, embryo fridge, hotel, and emergency bunker. And of course, there would be electric fences running 24/7 to keep the genetic attractions separated from park guests. In total, the physicists estimated that the park would use 455 million kilowatt hours a year, or the equivalent of 30,000 average homes. That annual energy bill comes out to roughly $63 million.

Keep in mind that energy would still only make up one part of Jurassic Park's hypothetical budget—factoring in money for lawsuits would be a whole different story.

Map of dinosaur park.
E.ON
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environment
This Plant Can Burn Your Skin With its Sap—And It May Be Coming to Your Neighborhood
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iStock

It's huge, it's extremely dangerous, and it's spreading. The giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) contains a corrosive sap that causes severe rashes, third-degree burns, and even permanent blindness if you get the photosensitive chemicals on your skin or in your eyes, Science Alert reports.

The noxious, invasive weed was just identified in Clarke County, Virginia, near the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech. That brings the number of states it's been spotted in to 11, including Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine. Beyond the U.S., it has taken root all over the world, from the UK to Iceland to Australia.

Similar to the common but slightly less dangerous cow parsnip, giant hogweed is native to Central Asia and was first brought to North America in the early 1990s as an ornamental plant, its unique shape making it popular among gardeners. But it soon became invasive: Once it’s established in an area, it can take up to five years to eradicate a colony.

Now the plant is considered a public health concern. Hogweed can cause a reaction known as phytophotodermatitis when it comes into contact with skin that is subsequently exposed to UV rays—but the effects of hogweed are much more severe. A painful blister can develop within hours and last for months; the exposed skin can remain sensitive to sunlight for years even after the blisters heal.

Hogweed can be difficult to distinguish from the cow parsnip, and the plant is often misidentified. First, check for height: Hogweeds are typically taller than 8 feet, while cow parsnip tends to be 5 to 8 feet tall. Hogweed stems are green with purple specks and coarse white hairs, while parsnip stems are green with fine white hairs. For more tips and photos, check out the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s guide.

If you see a plant you think might be a giant hogweed, take a few photos and send them to your state's department of agriculture to identify—and whatever you do, don't touch it.

[h/t Science Alert]

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