Puzzling Phenomenon : A rise in ''fairy circles,'' or just wishful thinking ?

Fairy circles inspire wonders in viewers and fuel contention among experts. For decades, scientists have debated the origin of the strange, polka-dot-like patterns of barren earth, which have been found in the Namib desert, stretching from Angola to northern South Africa.

Some researchers say they also occur in the Australian outback.

Now, there's something new to argue about : To what extent are fairy circles found around the world?

Findings based on satellite imagery raise the possibility that fairy circles are significantly more widespread, occurring in up to 263 sites in 15 countries across continents.

''We discovered fairy circle locations in many other places that we didn't know existed before,'' said Fernando Maestre, an ecologist at the University of Alicante in Spain and an author of the study.

Other researchers who have worked on fairy circles say that until field work is performed, it remains to be seen whether any of the newly identified circular, bare patches are true fairy circles.

Stephan Getzin, an ecologist in Germany, said, however, that '' the study dilutes the term ''fairy circle''  and it ignores the definition of fairy circles in the process.''

Dr. Getzin and colleagues argue that true fairy circles occur in a gridlike pattern with ''extremely strong'' ordering. None of the newly identified fairly-circle-like gaps match this stringent pattern, Dr.Getzin said.

Dr. Maestre responded that Dr. Getzin's definition was '' not backed up by the whole of scientific community working with fairy circles '' and '' does not undermine our findings in any way. '' [ Rachel Nuwer ]


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