Using artificial intelligence, researchers have discovered mysterious "fairy circles" in hundreds of locations across the globe.
These unusual round vegetation patterns have long puzzled experts, dotting the landscapes in the Namib Desert and the Australian outback.
But according to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the unusual phenomenon could be far more widespread than previously thought, cracking the case wide open and raising plenty more questions than answers.
The international research team trained a neural network by feeding it more than 15,000 satellite images of locations in Namibia and Australia, roughly half of which contained fairy circles.
Then the team used the AI system to analyze satellite views of over half a million 2.5-acre plots of land found in other parts of the world. The AI identified more fairy circles across 263 dryland locations in 15 countries, similar to those previously identified in Namibia and Australia.
These new spots were found across Africa, Madagascar, Western Asia, and Southwest Australia, and were predominantly hot and sandy locations that received anywhere between four to 12 inches of rainfall a year.
But whether all of these instances are in fact arising from the same naturally-occurring mechanisms remains to be seen.
"In all arid regions of the world various types of bare patches exist, which are caused by different processes," Norbert Jürgens, an emeritus ecologist at the University of Hamburg, who was not involved in the research, told the New York Times.
The topic of fairy circles remains a "hotly debated topic," as co-author Fernando Maestre, an ecologist at the University of Alicante in Spain, conceded to the NYT. "We are not trying to fight with anyone."
For one, there's no consensus around how they form. Some experts believe they're the result of termite activity underneath the soil, as CNN reports. Others suggest that they're created by self-organizing plants.
Some experts questioned whether the newly identified sites even fell under the current, albeit loose, definition of fairy circles.
"Unfortunately, the only guardians of the term 'fairy circle' are self-appointed," Michael Cramer, an ecophysiologist at the University of Cape Town, who was not involved, told the NYT.
In short, the new finding adds to the mystery around the peculiar circles, and plenty more research will be needed to find consensus.
"I think that the world can be complex and that all the hypotheses of the formation of fairy circles could have a place depending on the site or the moment," co-author Emilio Guirado, from the University of Alicante in Spain, told Newsweek.
"It is likely that all of them are valid where they have been described and that some could be combined in a few places at once," he added. "For example, our results show that the importance of termites is greater in the Namibian zone than in Australia or the Sahel zone."
But "more specialized fieldwork is required to provide more information and results on the formation of these intriguing vegetation patterns," Guirado said.
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