If you fly over the Namibian desert, on the west coast of southern Africa, you will see one of nature's great mysteries. Vast expanses of the landscape are pocked with circles of bare patches of earth. These strange patterns - two to 35 meters wide - stretch for miles and, until now, no one was sure why.
On Wednesday, a team of scientists from universities around the globe with expertise that ranges from plant biology to termite physiology and behavior to data gathering and analysis and modeling - brought together by a National Science Foundation grant - published a theory in Nature that finally explains, and can predict mathematically, this mystery.
This study may also offer insights into familiar phenomena worldwide. Organized vegetation patterns are widespread in nature. But, even after debunking theories involving aliens and fairies, scientists have long disputed what causes them. Some believe they are created by plants engaged in a feedback loop caused by competition for limited resources. Others suggest that the patterns are caused by the subterranean activities of termites, ants or rodents. Neither explanation completely answers why the patters are geometric and worldwide.
But according to the research of this multidisciplinary team, the answer is a bit of both: The plants and animals engaged are in an ecosystem dance - expansion, competition, die off, rebirth - that results in a repeating pattern of death and renewal.