The mysteries surrounding these bizarre circular patches found throughout the Namibian desert go back centuries. Some local people refer to them as footprints of the gods, while others have long ascribed spiritual and magical powers to them. One myth even claims that the circles are formed by a dragon in the Earth that kills vegetation by spewing a poisonous breath.

Those ideas might seem far-fetched if you're scientifically-inclined, but until now scientists haven't been able to provide a consistent alternative theory. The two leading theories up to this point seemed to get halfway there, but when each was taken by itself, the explanation was incomplete.

Take, for instance, the first theory, involving termites. The idea was that the fairy circles were created by termites under the soil that clear vegetation in the area around their nests. The only problem? Although termite nests are almost always found within the circles, scientists have never been able to replicate the regular circular pattern that characterizes the patches.

A second theory claims that the circles are created by plants competing for water. Plants grow in patterns that relate to the shade that they provide for their neighbors, and also depending on their root systems. This theory became popular when it was shown that it can, mathematically, explain the regular patterns. But so far it hasn't been proven by any real life test.

When in doubt, just add

So what are theorists to do? Combine the two theories, of course. Corina Tarnita and colleague Rob Pringle of Princeton University turned to computer models to investigate whether some combination of both the termite theory and the plant competition theory might offer a more complete explanation, reports New Scientist.

Sure enough, they found a model that adequately explains the fairy circles as they are typically patterned in the Namibian desert, but there was one catch. The winning model also predicted a smaller pattern in the vegetation between the circles, which has never been reported. So Tarnita and Pringle decided to travel to Namibia themselves to investigate in person. It turns out, the smaller patterns were there too, just no one had noticed them before they knew what to look for.

“The fairy circles have drawn so much attention, people haven’t paid attention to how the vegetation looks between the circles,” said Tarnita.

Namibia doesn't host the only fairy circles in the world. Similar patches have been discovered in Australia, for instance. So until those patches are also investigated, it's not clear whether the theory proposed by Tarnita and Pringle can explain all known fairy circles. But at least for now, science has a natural explanation for some of these mysterious patches.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Scientists finally explain mysterious 'fairy circles' found in Namibia
Empty circular patches dot the Namibian desert, and until now scientists were at a loss to fully explain them.