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Jen Guyton
Jen Guyton

Scientists Identify the Creators of Namibia’s "Fairy Circles"

Jen Guyton
Jen Guyton

There’s a lot to explore on this planet. For instance, fairy rings, which are weird bald spots that appear in African grasslands. On this front, a team of scientists have made some headway. They wrote about their findings in the journal Nature.

Jen Guyton

 
Scientists define fairy circles as evenly spaced, circular bald spots in areas otherwise covered by vegetation. The spots can be between 2 and 35 meters across and have so far been spotted in the grasslands and deserts in both Africa and Australia. The most famous fairy circles in the world can be found in a stretch of sandy soil in Namibia, where scientists have been trying to nail down a culprit for years.

There are currently two prevailing theories. The first is that the circles essentially make themselves when plants opt out of growing in these spots in order to out-compete other plants nearby. The second is that the circles are the product of underground activity by rodents, ants, or termites. Both theories make sense; plants have to be extra-strategic with their growth in dry regions, and many fairy circles abut termite mounds or anthills.

Ecologist Corina Tornita of Princeton University decided to put both theories to the test. She and her colleagues created computer simulations that incorporated just about every element of fairy circle existence: termite colony growth, mortality, rainfall, vegetation spread, root systems—you name it.

Tyler Coverdale

 
After crunching the numbers and reviewing the simulations, the researchers realized that neither theory was correct—at least on its own. Fairy circles required involvement from both plant and animal mechanisms to form.

The study authors say their results show that “interactions among social-insect colonies and vegetation can explain a diverse global suite of regular spatial patterns,” and that understanding weird natural phenomena will require considering a broad range of elements, including “behaviours and competitive dynamics of cryptic ecosystem-engineer species, the ways in which plants and SDF respond to bioturbation and climatic variability, and the movement of water through soil in different environmental contexts.” 

In other words: Even seemingly simple shapes are the result of complex networks, in which living and non-living things all influence one another. Some "fairies" are six-legged, some have roots, and others are made out of water or dirt, but it takes all of them together to make what looks like magic.

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Which Rooms In Your Home Have the Most Types of Bugs, According to Entomologists 
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Insects can make any home their own, so long as it contains cracks, doors, and windows for them to fly, wriggle, or hitchhike their way in. And it turns out that the creepy crawlers prefer your living room over your kitchen, according to a new study that was recently highlighted by The Verge.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study looked at 50 homes in Raleigh, North Carolina, to measure their insect populations. Entomologists from both North Carolina State University and the California Academy of Sciences ultimately discovered more than 10,000 bugs, both alive and dead, and a diverse array of species to boot.

The most commonly observed bugs were harmless, and included ladybugs, silverfish, fruit flies, and book lice. (Luckily for homeowners, pests like bedbugs, termites, and fleas were scarcer.) Not all rooms, though, contained the same distribution of many-legged residents.

Ground-floor living rooms with carpets and windows tended to have the most diverse bug populations, as the critters had easy access inside, lots of space to live in, and a fibrous floor habitat that could be either a cozy homestead or a death trap for bugs, depending on whether they got stuck in it. The higher the floor level, the less diverse the bug population was, a fact that could be attributed to the lack of doors and outside openings.

Types of bugs that were thought to be specific to some types of rooms were actually common across the board. Ants and cockroaches didn’t limit themselves to the kitchen, while cellar spiders were present in all types of rooms. As for moths and drain flies, they were found in both common rooms and bathrooms.

Researchers also found that “resident behavior such as house tidiness, pesticide usage, and pet ownership showed no significant influence on arthropod community composition.”

The study isn’t representative of all households, since entomologists studied only 50 homes within the same geographical area. But one main takeaway could be that cohabiting bugs “are an inevitable part of life on Earth and more reflective of the conditions outside homes than the decisions made inside,” the researchers concluded. In short, it might finally be time to make peace with your itty-bitty housemates.

[h/t The Verge]

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Special Viewfinders Allow Colorblind People to Experience Fall Foliage in All Its Glory
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Each autumn, the foliage of the Great Smoky Mountains erupts into a kaleidoscope of golds, reds, and yellows. Visitors from around the world flock to the area to check out the seasonal show, and this year some guests will have the chance to see the display like they’ve never seen it before. As the Associated Press reports, Tennessee is now home to three special viewfinders at scenic overlooks that allow colorblind users to see the leaves of the forests in all their glory.

The new amenities cost $2000 apiece and have been installed by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development at the Ober Gatlinburg resort, at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area near Oneida, and at the westbound Interstate 26 overlook near Erwin in Unicoi County. The lenses are similar to glasses that allow people with red-green vision disorders to see in full color, but according to state officials this is likely the first time the technology has been implemented in scenic tower viewers.

Color blindness varies from person to person, but those who have it may tend to see mostly green or dull brown when looking at a brilliant autumnal landscape. Before the new features debuted at the beginning of November, tourism officials allowed a group of colorblind individuals to test them out. You can watch their reactions to seeing the true spectrum of fall colors for the first time in the video below.

[h/t AP]

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