Until recently, fairy circles — those strange, barren patches of earth that arrange themselves in a honeycomb-like pattern — had been documented only in southwestern Africa. In a paper Monday, scientists have confirmed the first example of this phenomenon in Australia, adding fuel to the hypothesis that competition for scarce water causes these mysterious patterns.
Scientists have been interested in fairy circles since the 1970s, but have not been able to agree on what causes the patterns to form. Researchers generally fall into two groups — team termite and team water competition — but there are other hypotheses as well, including one involving noxious gases.
Dr. Getzin, like others on team water competition, explains the circles through pattern-formation theory, a model for understanding the way nature organizes itself. The theory was first developed not by biologists, but by the mathematician Alan Turing. In the 1990s, ecologists and physicists realized it could be tweaked to explain some vegetation patterns as well. In harsh habitats where plants compete for nutrients and water, the new theory predicts that, as weaker plants die and stronger ones grow larger, vegetation will self-organize into patterns ranging from gaps to spots to labyrinths.
“Such phenomena are explained with lots of theory and formulas and math, which ecologists can make use of,” Dr. Getzin said.
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