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Skin cells link to 'fairy circles'

Published 07/04/2015

Namibian fairy circles are large barren patches of earth ringed by short grass dotting the desert, like giant polka dots (OIST/PA)
Namibian fairy circles are large barren patches of earth ringed by short grass dotting the desert, like giant polka dots (OIST/PA)

It sounds like another X-files case for Mulder and Scully..

Scientists have discovered a weird connection between skin cells and "fairy circles" in the Namibian desert.

Despite their vastly different scales, they have very closely matched distribution patterns - a coincidence unheard of in nature.

Desert fairy circles are themselves considered one of nature's greatest mysteries because no-one knows how they form.

They consist of large barren patches of earth ringed by short grass that dot the desert landscape, much like moon craters or big freckles.

Although the way fairy circles are distributed looks random, they actually follow a pattern, say researchers. And it is virtually identical to the pattern displayed by skin cells.

Professor Robert Sinclair, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, said: "It's a completely amazing, strange match.

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

With the help of computer software and satellite images, Prof Sinclair's team compared the number of neighbours adjacent to fairy circles in the Namibian desert and skin cells.

In each case, the results were almost identical, with the majority of both fairy circles and skin cells having six immediate neighbours. But then coincidence became even odder - the percentage of fairy circles with four, five, six, seven, eight and nine neighbours was also essentially the same as that of skin cells.

"I didn't expect it to be so close," said Prof Sinclair. "We spent a lot of time checking because it really looked too close to believe."

Many theories about how fairy circles form - from rolling zebras to underground gases to dying trees - have proved to be wrong. Now, some experts are developing mathematical models to explain the origin of mystery features.

The researchers, whose findings appear in the journal Ecological Complexity, suspect the patterns might be similar because both skin cells and fairy circles are fighting for space.

If true, scientists might one day be able to glean information about systems just by analysing patterns. For example, they could search for signs of life on other planets or moons, where images are usually the only data initially available.

Finding such patterns could also benefit ecology and biology in general. Understanding processes on one scale might highlight what is happening at the other end of the spectrum.

"Otherwise, we need a whole new theory for each type of system we study, and may miss general principles, or, as some say, not see the forest for the trees," said Prof Sinclair.

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