Toktok Talkie is a popular series written by Joh Henschel – to connect for more, join Joh’s Toktok Talkie mailing list by emailing him at email@example.com
A flurry of tiny sparkling wings laces the air as nuptial dancers are buoyed by the earthy dank vapour rising from the rain-soaked Namib plains. Honeymooners start small, digging tiny holes in the ground. Over time, their families grow and establish open circular dance floors. Here they dance incognito until, one day, they encountered He who Dances with Fairies.
As every Namib toktokkie knows, the fairies are tiny, dainty sand termites, Psammotermes allocerus, which build fairy circles. Their aerial nuptial dances are real enough, but the bare patches, fairy circles, which they create on the ground around their nests, are not dance floors, but farms. The termites eat grass roots, which kills the grass and clears a bare patch, which gradually gets bigger over the course of years.
When it rains – the little that it does – all rainwater falling onto the bare circles infiltrates deep and becomes storage of water for the termites themselves. This is different outside the bare circles, where the rapid germination and growth of grass quickly uses up most water. At the edges of circles, the stored water is also accessed by deep-rooted grass, and where otherwise only short-lived ephemeral grass would have grown, the grass can now continue to grow perennially, year after year. The termites continue to nibble on the fresh grass roots of a belt of sturdy grass right next to the bare patch. Thus, the termite colonies have secured water and food for themselves. Good farming!
Sand termites are what scientists call allogenic ecosystem engineers. They change materials and structures in their environment in such a way that the ecosystem functions differently, affecting not only many other species, but processes across entire landscapes. Termites live in colonies of vast numbers, and they make circles across landscapes in vast numbers. Where fairy circles occur, what would otherwise be ephemeral desert grassland, now contains many patches of green perennial grass.
This is also food for many, such as springbok, gemsbok, livestock, and small herbivores. Other animals come for the termites themselves or their stored water, such as golden moles, aardvark, aardwolf, jackals, foxes, geckos, spiders, scorpions, sun-spiders, giant velvet mites, and plenty of different ants that raid the termite colonies. Not to forget, Toktokkie, gets seeds that drop from the rich belt of grass tufts at the circle edges. Toktokkie larvae thrive in the moist sand, thanks to the termites.
Fairy circles have in the past inspired numerous explanations, everything as wondrous as fairy tales, indeed, becoming ever curious and curiouser, though meant to be serious and factual. Scientists have, for decades, been staring holes in the ground in their efforts to find the solution. It took many years of patient, meticulous and astute observations by Norbert Jürgens to see through the fairies’ cryptic ploy.
Zophosis moralesi is awed by our real-world termite fairies, tiny creatures transforming vast tracts of land for the benefit of so many, let alone giving us the unimaginable privilege of being able to dance with fairies.
©Joh Henschel, EnviroMEND, firstname.lastname@example.org, June 2013