nimibian pattern

Mysterious desert fairy circles share pattern with skin cells

“The distribution of fairy circles throughout the desert may look random, but turns out to have a pattern that very closely matches the distribution pattern of skin cells. A pattern spanning such drastically different size scales — microscopic skin cells and the desert landscape — is almost unheard of in nature.”

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University

Patterns appearing on both the very large and very small scale are extremely rare, but researchers at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) in Japan have found a similar pattern in two apparently unrelated systems — skin cells and fairy circles in the Namibian desert.

“It’s a completely amazing, strange match,” said Prof. Robert Sinclair, who heads the Mathematical Biology Unit at OIST.

Desert fairy circles are considered one of nature’s greatest mysteries because no one knows how they form. Different from mushroom rings, these fairy circles are large barren patches of earth ringed by short grass dotting the desert like craters on the moon or big freckles. Several groups are racing to figure out this bizarre phenomenon. Sinclair and his collaborator, Haozhe Zhang, believe they have identified a small, but vital piece of the puzzle.

The distribution of fairy circles throughout the desert may look random, but turns out to have a pattern that very closely matches the distribution pattern of skin cells. A pattern spanning such drastically different size scales — microscopic skin cells and the desert landscape — is almost unheard of in nature.

“It is still difficult to say why exactly they are similar, but the fact that they are similar is already very important,” Sinclair said. “This is suggesting there may be such types of patterns that cover really different size scales.”

The research was recently published in Ecological Complexity.