Discovery of fairy circles in Australia supports self-organization theory

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Authors

  • O. Tzuk
  • Y.R. Zelnik
  • K. Wiegand
  • T. Wiegand
  • E. Meron
  • A. Hastings

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Abstract

Vegetation gap patterns in arid grasslands, such as the "fairy circles" of Namibia, are one of nature's greatest mysteries and subject to a lively debate on their origin. They are characterized by small-scale hexagonal ordering of circular bare-soil gaps that persists uniformly in the landscape scale to form a homogeneous distribution. Pattern-formation theory predicts that such highly ordered gap patterns should be found also in other water-limited systems across the globe, even if the mechanisms of their formation are different. Here we report that so far unknown fairy circles with the same spatial structure exist 10,000 km away from Namibia in the remote outback of Australia. Combining fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis, and process-based mathematical modeling, we demonstrate that these patterns emerge by self-organization, with no correlation with termite activity; the driving mechanism is a positive biomass-water feedback associated with water runoff and biomass-dependent infiltration rates. The remarkable match between the patterns of Australian and Namibian fairy circles and model results indicate that both patterns emerge from a nonuniform stationary instability, supporting a central universality principle of pattern-formation theory. Applied to the context of dryland vegetation, this principle predicts that different systems that go through the same instability type will show similar vegetation patterns even if the feedback mechanisms and resulting soil-water distributions are different, as we indeed found by comparing the Australian and the Namibian fairy-circle ecosystems. These results suggest that biomass-water feedbacks and resultant vegetation gap patterns are likely more common in remote drylands than is currently known.
Peer-reviewedYes
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3551-3556
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume113
Issue number13
DOIs
StatePublished - 2016


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