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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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Weird
Massive Tumbleweeds Invaded a California Town, Trapping Residents in Their Homes
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iStock

For Americans who don’t live out west, any mention of tumbleweeds tends to conjure up images of a lone bush blowing lazily across the desert. The reality is not so romantic, as Californians would tell you.

The town of Victorville, California—an 85-mile drive from Los Angeles—was overtaken by massive tumbleweeds earlier this week when wind speeds reached nearly 50 mph. The tumbleweeds blew across the Mojave Desert and into town, where they piled up on residents’ doorsteps. Some stacks towered as high as the second story, trapping residents in their homes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

City employees and firefighters were dispatched to tackle the thorny problem, which reportedly affected about 150 households. Pitchforks were used to remove the tumbleweeds, some of which were as large as 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide.

"The crazy thing about tumbleweeds is that they are extremely thorny, they connect together like LEGOs," Victorville spokeswoman Sue Jones told the Los Angeles Times. "You can't reach out and grab them and move them. You need special tools. They really hurt."

Due to the town’s proximity to the open desert, residents are used to dealing with the occasional tumbleweed invasion. Similar cases have been reported in Texas, New Mexico, and other states in the West and Southwest. In 1989, the South Dakota town of Mobridge had to use machinery to remove 30 tons of tumbleweeds, which had buried homes, according to Metro UK.

Several plant species are considered a tumbleweed. The plant only becomes a nuisance when it reaches maturity, at which time it dries out, breaks from its root, and gets carried off into the wind, spreading seeds as it goes. They’re not just unsightly, either. They can cause soil dryness, leading to erosion and sometimes even killing crops.

[h/t Los Angeles Times]

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New Plankton Species Named After Sir David Attenborough Series Blue Planet
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia
John Phillips, Getty Images for Tourism Australia

At least 19 creatures, both living and extinct, have been named after iconic British naturalist Sir David Attenborough. Now, for the first time, one of his documentary series will receive the same honor. As the BBC reports, a newly discovered phytoplankton shares its name with the award-winning BBC series Blue Planet.

The second half of the species' name, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, is Latin for "blue planet," likely making it the first creature to derive its name from a television program. The single-cell organisms are just thousandths of a millimeter wide, thinner than a human hair, but their massive blooms on the ocean's surface can be seen from space. Called coccolithophores, the plankton serve as a food source for various marine life and are a vital marker scientists use to gauge the effects of climate change on the sea. The plankton's discovery, by researchers at University College London (UCL) and institutions in Spain and Japan, is detailed in a paper [PDF] published in the Journal of Nannoplankton Research.

"They are an essential element in the whole cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it, and you mess about with this sort of thing, and the echoes and the reverberations and the consequences extend throughout the atmosphere," Attenborough said while accepting the honor at UCL.

The Blue Planet premiered in 2001 with eight episodes, each dedicated to a different part of the world's oceans. The series' success inspired a sequel series, Blue Planet II, that debuted on the BBC last year.

[h/t BBC]

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