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Bare circular patches may be linked to spinifex termites rather than just plants competing for water as scientists had concluded

An aerial view of a desert spinifex landscapes with regular bare circle patches

Fairy circles or termite pavements in spinifex east of Newman on Nyiyaparli country in Western Australia. Photograph: Supplied/University of Western Australia

Indigenous knowledge may have helped solve the scientific mystery of how polka-dot “fairy circles” occur in Australian deserts.

The bare circular patches were first recorded by scientists in Africa in the 1970s, sparking a global debate about the phenomenon.

Ethnoecologist Fiona Walsh said scientists had concluded they came about from plants competing for water and nutrients.

But traditional owners have a different hypothesis for the circles that are between two and 12 metres in diameter.

Martu elder Gladys Bidu said the patches are called linyji and termites live in the ground under them.

“I learnt this from my old people and have seen it myself many times,” she said.

“We gathered and ate the Warturnuma [flying termites] that flew from linyji.”

Bidu said her ancestors also used the rock hard circles to break open and crush seeds for use in food, such as damper.

“Aboriginal people told us that these regular circular patterns of bare pavements are occupied by spinifex termites,” Walsh said on Tuesday.

“We saw similarities between the patterns in Aboriginal art and aerial views of the pavements and found paintings that have deep and complex stories about the activities of termites and termite ancestors.”

Researchers surveyed and excavated trenches on land containing multiple fairy circles in Nyiyaparli country, east of Newman in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

They also looked at patches at Newhaven, an Australian Wildlife Conservancy property in Warlpiri country in the Northern Territory.

“The pavement surface is concrete hard,” Walsh said.

“After we dug and then dusted to clean the trenches, 100% of them had termite chambers seen horizontally and vertically in the matrix.”