Desiccation of undamaged grasses in the topsoil causes Namibia's fairy circles – Response to Jürgens & Gröngröft (2023)

Stephan Getzin, Hezi Yizhaq

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

In a novel study, Getzin et al. (2022) have excavated 500 grasses at four regions of the Namib to systematically investigate the temporal process of how the young grasses die in fairy circles. Based on measurements of the root lengths, statistical testing, and comparative photo documentations the authors showed that sand termite herbivory did not cause the death of the freshly germinated grasses within fairy circles (FCs). Roots of those dead grasses were initially undamaged and even longer than those of the living grasses outside in the vegetation matrix, which is contrary to termite herbivory. The dying annual grasses within FCs had significantly higher root-to-shoot ratios than the vital grasses in the matrix, both of which can be attributed to the same grass-triggering rain event. This indicates that they died from water stress because the desiccating grasses invested biomass resources into roots, trying to reach the deeper soil layers with more moisture, but they failed. Jürgens and Gröngröft (2023) commented on our research findings. Here, we shed light on their statements by investigating the existing data evidence on the Namib fairy circles, which includes a thorough literature review about the proposed termite-feeding mechanism, as well as describing the properties of soil water within and around the FCs. Our review shows that there is no single study to date that has demonstrated with systematic field evidence in the form of root measurements and data from several regions of the Namib that the green germinating grasses within the FCs would be killed by root herbivory of sand termites. We emphasize that the top 10 cm of soil in the FCs is very susceptible to drying out. In this topsoil layer, the freshly germinated grasses with their 10 cm long roots die quickly after rainfall due to lack of water, because these small plants cannot reach and utilize the higher soil moisture content, which is only found in deeper soil layers below the dry topsoil. Based on 400 measurements of soil moisture during the rainy season 2024, we show that the topsoil in the FCs is significantly drier than in the matrix outside. Finally, we show that the soil physical conditions allow a very high hydraulic conductivity that supports the “uptake-diffusion feedback” during the first weeks after grass-triggering rainfall. During the first two weeks, the soil moisture at 20 cm depth ranged for several rainfall events between 9% and 18% within the FCs, hence way above the 6–8% threshold below which the hydraulic conductivity strongly declines. Even 20 days after rainfall, soil moisture was still above 8%. During this biologically active period, new grasses germinate after about five days, the large perennial grasses along the FC edge resprout and strongly draw water with their established root system at 20–30 cm depth, and the freshly germinated grasses in the FCs desiccate and die within 10–20 days. With our continuous soil moisture measurements, we argue that the quickly greening and competitively superior grasses on the FC edge, as well as the vital matrix grasses, draw soil water from the FCs. This rapid depletion of soil water and drying out of the topsoil leads to the death of the new grasses in the fairy circles.

Original languageEnglish
Article number125780
JournalPerspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics
Volume63
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2024

Keywords

  • Desiccation
  • Namib
  • Plant ring
  • Plant water stress
  • Root-shoot ratio
  • Soil water diffusion
  • Topsoil

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Plant Science

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