Researcher: Professor Eugene John Moll
Region: Namib Desert, Namibia
The phenomenon of fairy rings in the Namib Desert has been the subject of much controversy as to their origins and purpose, ranging from the work of ants to the work of aliens. Much has been researched and written about this phenomenon that is confined to the sand soils of the pro-Namib from some 300 km north into Angola to just across the Gariep River in South Africa. So far none of the research has been conclusive.
Professor Moll has already published some work on fairy rings, but despite a recent paper by a group from the University of Pretoria, their origin remains inconclusive and answers elusive. He believes that new equipment can give a definitive answer to the vexed question of how fairy rings are made. It is believed that this will tie in with the archaeological literature that records the Damara people collecting quantities of clean grass seed from ant nests, which they then used to make a kind of bread.
The aim of the project is to once and for all establish the role of seed-harvesting ants in the making of fairy rings.
Two collaborators on the project will provide much-needed answers: Klaus Knupp of Swakopmund who is a foundation engineering specialist will provide innovative equipment of his own design (used to map the integrity of underground structures and formations) to build a non-destructive 3D image of the substrate and any ant colonies beneath the fairy rings. Roger Swart is a geologist who specialises in sedimentary rocks and the sand of the Namib Desert.
The objective is quite simply to use equipment that maps the integrity of the underground formations and structures, taking it into the pro-Namib to sample several fairy rings, after which 3D computer graphic models of the underground structures will be built. Based on these images, seeds and a few ants will be removed from the ant nests, at which point it is hoped to finally establish the ants as the architects of the fairy rings – something that the Damara people have known, but having lost their connection to the land some 100 years ago, cannot confirm.
The results will be published both in scientific literature as well as popular literature as fairy rings and their origins have been a conundrum for many decades.
The plan is to go to the research site in mid-October to begin the work, with an estimated four to five days in the field. After writing up the results a draft paper will be submitted by March or April 2013.
The ground penetrating radar indicated that there is a marked discontinuity between the soils in and outside of the fairy rings (FRs). It was clear that this feature started at a depth of one metre and continuing to ten metres. This phenomenon is known as a ‘root curtain’ and it starts under the rim or edge of the FRs as a cone shaped feature.
We can now speculate more confidently about the agents that cause the FRs, and I am certain that they are colonial insects – either ants or termites that may or may not be seed harvesters. It also seems that when the ephemeral colony dies, the FR appears after the death of the colony. That is exciting and a new “theory” but one that is well supported by the facts we have gathered. This fits with some of the recent work by Tschinkel who reports that FRs appear suddenly and get re-incorporated back into the matrix slowly, and others who have invoked toxic gases as the cause for the lack of plant growth on FRs.
We are, therefore, another step closer to discovering what makes these FRs. We also know that if we are right in our assumption that the FRs only appear after the colony is dead then that is why it has been so difficult (in fact impossible) to find the insects.