Desert ‘mysteries’: start by asking the locals 

p2361 Termite Tibor

Above: Desert patterns (the bare earth circles). Photo by TIBOR HEGGEDIS 2016.

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

Earlier this year a team of mostly international scientists announced they had “discovered” a natural phenomenon – “one of nature’s greatest mysteries” – occurring in north-western Australia. This was the circular gap patterning in mostly spinifex grasslands, which they dubbed “fairy circles”, the name given to a similar pattern observed in Namibia.

 

The scientists, led by Stephan Getzin from Germany, also provided a definitive explanation for the circles, published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

 

The allure of mystery, discovery and magic helped their fairy circle story go round the English-speaking world, receiving attention from major newspapers, broadcasters and journals. One headline even featured  “dragons, aliens and bugs”; another made the “Out of Africa” connection.

 

p2361 Termite Fiona & GladysTrouble is, both the Getzin team and the media in their wake forgot to ask the locals.

 

When Alice Springs-based CSIRO ecologist Fiona Walsh did just that, pointing to one of the rock-hard circular gaps, her Manjilyjarra interlocutor, Gladys Bidu, didn’t hesitate: “Oh, linyji, manyjurrpa linyji” she said, using the Manjilyjarra words for hard ground associated with termites.

 

Right: Gladys Bidu in the field with Fiona Walsh. Photo by SOPHIA WALTER, Country Needs People.

 

This understanding was consistent with previously published studies by Australian desert ecologists (in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and 2000s) and observations by Dr Walsh and scientific peers working across the arid rangelands: the circles are “pavement termitaria”. Because they are clear of the needle-sharp spinifex, people can sit comfortably on them, and will choose to walk across them when travelling through the desert. Older desert people also sweep the circles clean of loose sand and use them to prepare foods and make artefacts.

 

Dr Walsh has archival video footage from a field trip in 1987 showing Aboriginal women using the hard swept surface of a linyji to grind seed (see images at bottom). She has also observed grinding stones left behind on another linyji, an indication that the pavement had been used for this purpose decades ago.

 

Termites make the flat-surfaced concreted pavements, explains Dr Walsh. They are so hard that they limit seed germination or plant growth, hence the bareness. But beneath the hard surface are whole “termite towns” – chambers and tunnels, with some including food stores and different castes of termites.

 

The Getzin team, however, ruled out termite activity as causing the patterns.

 

p2361 Termite GillamThey preferred an explanation of plants organising themselves in response to hot arid conditions: clay-rich crusts develop in the topsoil, causing rain to shed across the surface, and plants respond by circling around the crusts to share the infiltration occurring in the more sandy soils at their edges. It’s called “self-organised biomass-water feedback”.

 

Left: The circles are common between Newman in WA and Newhaven in the NT. Photo by MIKE GILLAM.

 

This explanation supports a “central universality principle of pattern-formation theory”, their PNAS article proposes. They tested the hypothesis of course, using sophisticated remote-sensing pattern analysis and mathematical modelling as well as carrying out a week of field work in the Pilbara, around Newman.

 

In the field Getzin and colleagues did observe some evidence of termite and ant activity, but rejected it as causal because the signs did not appear to correlate with the size of the circles or their regular patterning. Where they observed nests they tended to be at the edges of the circles.

 

They report breaking the hard crusts with a hammer to see whether there were galleries or foraging holes below the surface. But a hammer may not have been up to the job, says Dr Walsh. She used a 10 kilo crowbar for her excavations and the results were unequivocal.

 

p2361 Termite Fiona crowbar

Above: The hard yakka of a scientific investigation (Dr Walsh at work).

Below: Some of the results, revealing subterranean termite chambers (below left) and active soldier and worker termites (below right). Photos by FIONA WALSH.

 

She and her colleagues excavated at the centre of 17 bare circles in four different locations across Western Australia and the Northern Territory. These were the north-west of Newman, the Jigalong Road, the Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area and the Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. In all 17 circles there was evidence of termite activity and in ten spots excavated at one location there were either active (60%) or abandoned (40%) galleries.

 

The soil is so hardened by termites that the circles may last for at least decades in some contexts, becoming “the ghosts of termitaria past”, says Dr Walsh.

 

p2361 Termite excavation 2She suggests that the new Australian data make a case for revisiting a termite hypothesis for African circles – argued for by Norbert Jurgens from the University of Hamburg in Germany – despite being rejected by the Getzin team.

 

With her colleagues Ashley Sparrow (CSIRO), Peter Kendrick (WA Parks and Wildlife) and Josef Schofield (Australian Wildlife Conservancy), Dr Walsh has disputed the conclusions of the Getzin team in a letter published yesterday (3 September) on the PNAS site, along with a reply by Dr Getzin and colleagues.

 

Dr Walsh acknowledges that findings about the associations between the circles and termite activity does not answer all the questions about them. Many questions linger, such as what complex of ecological processes shapes patterns of termitaria and desert vegetation generally? She and her colleagues propose that investigations into termite behaviour and occupancy dynamics, the influences of wild and human-induced fire in spinifex-mulga landscapes, and interactions between these processes could identify the drivers of the patterning.

 

Meanwhile, Dr Getzin and colleagues are sticking with their explanation.

 

“A healthy scientific process is underway,” says Dr Walsh, “reply and counter-reply, but we do not yet have reason to waver from our conclusion.”
p2361 Termite chamber 2

 

Dr Sparrow has also commented: “Unfortunately the Getzin team’s response misinterprets our paper. Firstly, they suggest that we believe that the circles are the eroded bases of termite mounds, when in fact we understand that these species of termites build wide, flat termitaria level with the soil surface. Secondly, their response suggests that we are unfamiliar with vegetation self-organisation in desert ecosystems. In fact, we are well aware of the processes leading to banded mulga and other truly self-organised vegetation types, but in this case we simply believe that termites are the cause rather than plant self-organisation.”

 

So, beyond curiosity about natural phenomena and issues of scientific rigour, why is this story important? And why do we need to understand what is going on with these circles?

 

Having a baseline understanding of the patterns and dynamics of desert systems is essential to tracking the impacts of climate change, says Dr Walsh. This may help answer big questions such as, “Are deserts getting barer like sea ice is fragmenting and retreating?”

 

These questions need suitable methods and information to answer them, that goes without saying, and Dr Walsh argues that combined knowledge from Aboriginal experts and long-term ecologists working with effective scientific techniques are best placed to provide those methods and information.

 

“The national trend toward ‘fly-in, fly-out’ science risks misinterpretations of Australian desert systems,” says Dr Walsh.

 

p2361 Termite grinding 1p2361 Termite grinding 2p2361 Termite grinding 3p2361 Termite grinding 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: Dr Walsh’s photo essay, “Seeing the spots, re-connect …” can be seen on Flickr here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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11 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Michael LaFlamme
    Posted May 1, 2017 at 8:44 pm

    The Computer vs. The Crowbar continues.
    A few months ago a group of computer modellers published an analysis in Nature (541: 398–401) that fully supports what the Aboriginal people and Fiona observed, AND also supports part of the “fairy circle” hypothesis.
    Competition between territorial termites (subterranean borders) create the regularity of these large-scale hexagonal patterns AND the plants between the termites also organise into circular patterns that help each other resist and recover from drought.
    Both groups have their own strategy that helps sustain their ecosystem.
    However, this model was done using only the data from “termite circles” in Namibia, not yet from those in Australia. So we must wait for Round 4.

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  2. Come in Spinner
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    Not having a CSIRO research base in Central Australia is unacceptable. The work of these long term dedicated scientists needs to be better resourced and appreciated.
    They are dedicated to excellence and are passionate about this region.
    It is tragic that we do not recognise what is happening here.
    Fiona is one of the few people who truly knows how to bridge the cultural divide and bring these knowledge systems together to make a better future for our environment (and people) possible!

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  3. Paul Parker
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    NT Education should run a Project Environment with each school contributing their own ongoing reports to update knowledge of their local environments.
    Students should be able to receive recognition for their contributions, even rewards acknowledging discoveries.

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  4. Pip Mcmanus
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Lovely article, thank you Kieran and Fiona.
    Reminded me of the recent story on the origin of Palm valley palms – now believed (scientifically!) to have been brought down, as seeds, from up north a very long time ago.
    And yes there are still stories in Aboriginal oral history relating to this, but the scientists never bothered to ask before.

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  5. Pip Mcmanus
    Posted September 7, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Lovely article, thank you Kieran and Fiona. Reminded me of the recent story on the origin of Palm valley palms – now believed (scientifically!) to have been brought down, as seeds, from up north a very long time ago. And yes there are still stories in Aboriginal oral history relating to this, but the scientists never bothered to ask before …

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  6. Craig San Roque
    Posted September 6, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    It is great to see a local scientist at work, Dr Walsh breaking ground with a 10kg crowbar. Thankyou Alice News for making this story known.

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  7. Matt Colloff
    Posted September 6, 2016 at 11:19 am

    In an era of increasing environmental change and uncertainty, Kieran’s article is a timely reminder that we are still learning the basics of the structure and function of Australian landscapes and ecosystems. The deceptively simple three-way relationships between vegetation, water and soil (and its diverse inhabitants) is a case in point. There is still so much to be discovered, literally at our feet.

    The article also raises the question of how environmental knowledge of our wide brown land is best created and communicated. It highlights the contrast between a cultural perspective in which knowledge is generated on-country as an inclusive, collaborative learning process between ecologists and Aboriginal experts, and one where environmental knowledge is the product of top-down, theoretical, highly technical modelling frameworks. It is a no-brainer as to which approach might be more likely to engage people in growing their understanding of their environment and in providing awareness, meaning and connectedness.

    As Alex points out, CSIRO is opting out of supporting environmental research in Central Australia and elsewhere. Part of the rationale is that long-term, inclusive collaborations like those of Fiona Walsh and her colleagues may provide ‘public good’ benefits but are considered expensive and time-consuming, offering little by way of financial returns. Environmental research in CSIRO is increasingly being undertaken only by top-down techno-modelling approaches and a naïve belief in the explanatory power of ‘big data’. Those in CSIRO who support this ideology ignore the fact that about half of CSIRO’s income is from public funding and that the organisation has asserted its strong commitment to Indigenous engagement in environmental research.

    By opting out of Central Australia and bottom-up environmental research, CSIRO risks ignoring its most important stakeholders: Australia taxpayers. But if CSIRO is to be held account, then its stakeholders need to speak out about what they want and expect from CSIRO.

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  8. Phil Walcott
    Posted September 6, 2016 at 6:24 am

    Great story, Kieran … thanks.

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  9. Michael LaFlamme
    Posted September 5, 2016 at 8:14 pm

    @1 I agree with Alex’s point about FIFO researchers applying preconceived ideas, but there is a larger issue: the prevalence of such “questionable research practices.” In a recent survey of scientists with 2,000 responses, over half admitted engaging in such practices.

    Getzin and his ten co-authors made their fairy ring ‘discovery’ by “combining fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis, and process-based mathematical modeling.” Fiona et al falsified it with a crowbar, and then pointed out for good measure that local Aboriginal people already held that knowledge: “Australian Aboriginal people have long recognized pavement termitaria and use them as sitting areas, walking paths, and food and artifact processing sites.” I hope Getzin’s colleagues have already gifted him with an engraved crowbar.

    But four of his co-authors can qualify as local: from Rio Tinto Environmental Management in Perth; Kings Park and Botanic Garden in WA; the School of Plant Biology at UWA; and an entomologist. Thus, being local creates no immunity to questionable practices. Recall that the NT Botanist unsuccessfully warned the previous generation of Alice Springs CSIRO scientists to not introduce various buffel grasses and other species to mitigate the dusty effects of cattle and drought, but instead to use natives. No amount of money can now “restore or mitigate” the resulting damage.

    Most research funded and produced to benefit central Australia is unknown to the public. Thus, it would be good if more research with local consequence were shared on this site, for news and peer reviews.

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  10. Posted September 5, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    Yes, the on-going de-funding for arid zone research seems extremely short sighted and foolish, given the potential of climate change plus the embracing of ‘science’ by indigenous people in combination with traditional knowledge – led by scientists such as Dr Walsh. It seems an absolutely critical time in the development of that combination of science and tradition, both in retaining and recording the science of traditional knowledge and for employment in the places indigenous people have always lived and still wish to. Keep the experienced scientists in The Centre!

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  11. Posted September 4, 2016 at 8:55 am

    This story reinforces a point often made by Peter Latz, which (as I understand it) is essentially that most scientific research efforts are skewed by where scientists and researchers reside.
    In Australia, for example, the majority of academics reside in cities and near the coast, and this leads directly to most research effort and publications occurring predominantly in those locations; consequently the inland and outback regions of Australia (which comprises the bulk of our landmass) suffers from a comparative lack of research attention and effort.
    The result overall creates a misleading impression of how the continent works, to put it simply.
    This problem is exacerbated by researchers that flit in for brief periods of time to conduct their work and publish results according to preconceived ideas based on observations from other regions of the world (just as this story relates).
    Nothing beats having dedicated professionals living on the scene, painstakingly building up a collection of data and wealth of knowledge that can only really be achieved through years and even lifetimes of work.
    That is why the closure of research facilities in regional and remote areas (such as maybe happening to the CSIRO in Alice Springs) are so serious, as such decisions threaten our ability to understand the environment in which we live and lead to increased risk of mismanagement; and that always leads to a heavy public price tag to either restore or mitigate the damage.

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