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Nature & Environment

Aboriginal knowledge upends debate on mysterious fairy circles

April 11, 2023 · Comment icon 5 comments

What are these and how do they form ? Image Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 Stephan Getzin
The original inhabitants of Australia have much to teach modern scientists about the nature of this intriguing phenomenon.
What are "fairy circles"? They are polka dots of bare earth, regularly scattered across arid grasslands. Scientists first described fairy circles in Namibia in the 1970s and sparked a global debate in the scientific community about the causes of the phenomenon.

In 2016, a group of international scientists concluded that, in the Australian Pilbara, "fairy circles" arose from spinifex plants competing for water and nutrients - a similar explanation to the one they proposed for fairy circles in Namibia. These stories were amplified by the media, but the voices of Aboriginal desert people were not reported.

In a study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution today, we show what our Aboriginal coauthors have always known - that fairy circles in the Western Deserts of Australia are flat, hard "pavements" inhabited by spinifex termites (Drepanotermes species).

Knowing the Country

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia's Western Desert, including the Pilbara, for at least 50,000 years and know their Country deeply. We are grateful to be part of a cross-cultural team of researchers that include Western Desert people and scientists.

Our starting points included open-minded curiosity. Some of us knew little about spinifex grassland ecosystems. None of us knew about "fairy circles" or the international science debate. However, we all wanted to learn, and were interested in learning together. As our research unfolded, the more we learned, the more we realised we didn't know. We learned things that were new even to those who've lived in and studied deserts for a lifetime.

We saw similarities between patterns in specific Aboriginal artworks and aerial views of the pavements. We found paintings that tell deep and complex stories about termites and the activities of termite Jukurrpa (Dreaming) ancestors.

Western Desert Martu people call the fairy circle pavements linyji and the fat-rich flying termites Warturnuma. We learned that the hard surfaces of linyji are used to thresh seed and flying termites are prized foods. Martu colleague Gladys Karimarra Bidu stated:

Linyji are the homes of termites who live underground. We gathered and ate the Warturnuma that flew from linyji. Warturnuma is wama, delicious. Old people also put their seeds on the hard linyji. They hit seed to make damper; our good food. I learnt this from my old people and have seen this myself many times.

Termites as kin

This knowledge about pavements and termites is shared and passed down through generations by Martu and other Indigenous groups. Our Australian Wildlife Conservancy colleagues Alice Nampijinpa Michaels and Lee Nangala Wayne describe their feelings for flying spinifex termites in this video. Alice said:
Pamapardu, big mob. Waturnuma and pamapardu we call them. I been crying for that pamapardu. I was crying for my brother. My brother's Dreaming.

Why such strong feelings? Spinifex termites are kin to them. Those that live in the pavements are like the krill of desert ecosystems - they are super-abundant. Most people think of above-ground termite mounds, but here is a whole community that lives mostly below the soil surface, only emerging to eat dead spinifex or to fly to reproduce.

Most Australians consider spinifex grasslands to be "rubbish country". A pastoralist even said so while we were excavating into termite pavements. He was about to set fire to the spinifex (and potentially us). Termites, including those that live in the spinifex, are often maligned and poisoned by Australians. However, these vast tracts of land and their termites are deeply important to Aboriginal people in ways that were invisible to some of our team.

New science findings from Aboriginal knowledge

Our cross-cultural research has led to unexpected findings. Termite pavements hold water after big rains, which was unknown to scientists until we recognised clues in the stories and art of Aboriginal country folk. Purungu Desmond Taylor, Martu interpreter and co-author, remembered the Mulyamiji, great desert skink, and describes breeding behaviour not previously reported by scientists:

After good rains in linyji country, Mulyamiji would be born in water lying on the linyji. My mother, my two fathers, my uncle told me this long ago.

Aboriginal people have refined their encyclopaedic knowledge while living continuously on this continent for thousands of generations. Listening to Aboriginal desert voices improved our understanding of how ubiquitous, but often overlooked, desert Country works.

We learnt that the flat, hard linyji are used to prepare foods, they can become ephemeral sources of water and support the breeding of Mulyamiji, they provide abundant and rich sources of food, and have deep spiritual significance.

This year, Australians will be asked to recognise Australia's First Nations People in our constitution. In our experience, we strengthen our connections with Country and each other when we nurture relationships, listen well and share together, work equitably and two-ways.

Fiona Walsh, Ethnoecologist, The University of Western Australia; Carolyn Oldham, Professor, The University of Western Australia; Purungu Desmond Taylor, Warnman - Manjilyjarra man from Karlamilyi National Park, interpreter and artist, Indigenous Knowledge, and Theo Evans, Associate Professor, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (5)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by Ell 1 year ago
It does not provide a cause for the fairy circles.   They are caused, as I have asserted elsewhere, by microcirculation of air. (Similar to Rayleigh-Bénard convection.)
Comment icon #2 Posted by Nicolette 1 year ago
I have heard that before and termites sounds plausible. The one that happened in my yard was definitely a ring of mushrooms though so i am pretty sure the bare patch was mycelium. Maybe that is what you mean rather than microcirculation? Don't think the ground has blood flow...
Comment icon #3 Posted by Ell 1 year ago
Microcirculation of air in the absence of wind: a small patch of ground is heated, the hot air sucks the moisture out of the ground, rises, cools down, drops down to the ground, depositing its moisture, enabling plants to grow in the ring of slightly wetter ground, flows to the center of the patch again, gets heated - and repeat, Over the years the bare patch gradually grows in size.   The insects just happen to prefer the conditions below the patch and take up residence there.
Comment icon #4 Posted by openozy 1 year ago
I was a Greenkeeper on bowling greens for 30 years and these would appear from time to time. This is on a large flat area with good, even drainage and extremely short grass. Spraying with fungicide would eradicate the fairy ring.
Comment icon #5 Posted by Ell 1 year ago
Such fungus or toadstool fairy rings are well understood. The desert fairy rings are not caused by a fungus.

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