Centre treasures well hidden

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

Newcomers trickling into The Centre at the start of the year to take up jobs are likely to think the spaces aren’t just wide open, but also empty.

But some will choose to become locals, not just because they see the Todd flow three times, but because they discover the place to be full of fascinating life.

Much of it happens underground. Take the fairy circles. 

Fiona Walsh (at right, looking at nasute termite mound, photo by Fiona Webb) and a team of mostly volunteers began studying them in 2016 and their story has now been published in two papers including Nature Ecology and Evolution, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific magazines. 

It follows field work in remote desert country in the NT and WA, helped by 92 volunteers from Australia and overseas, some having to return to their day jobs after a weekend of digging.

The 16 co-authors, half of them Aboriginal people with knowledge accumulated over thousands of years, were learning about a phenomenon spread over much of inland Australia.

There are perhaps millions of circles in spinifex country – each with a termite city under a hard, bare capping with “galleries and chambers and chaff stores and living areas that tunnel the subterranean structure,” explains Dr Walsh. 

“The winged termites who flew out of the pavements were a major gourmet food for desert people.”

Don’t call termites ants or white ants! Termites evolved 30 million years earlier than ants. In desert Australia, there are about 200 species of termites (see Morton Australian Deserts 2022). Only a few termites are a nuisance for people’s buildings.

Dr Walsh’s team was questioning the theory of a group of German-Israeli-Australian scientists who were looking at the circles in the east Pilbara. They argued the Newman pavement patterns were from plants organising themselves – not from termites.

Ethnoecologist Walsh says the termites live under a concrete-hard surface which Aboriginal people know well as they used the surface to thresh seeds for flour.

Aboriginal people used water collected after rainfall on the circles: “The water holding features of termite pavements would not have been recognised without the Aboriginal team members, two Warlpiri and six Martu and an Honours student, Matilda Nelson.

“That’s a big finding,” says Dr Walsh.

We would not have looked at the water story were it not for clues from old knowledge, Aboriginal artworks and records in dictionaries.

“Aboriginal people didn’t just add, they led some of our science questions.”

Dr Walsh and colleagues made many trips from Alice Springs to west of Kiwirrkurra, Newman in the Pilbara of WA, Aileron Station north of Alice Springs and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy Sanctuary in Newhaven in the southern Tanami Desert in the NT: To Newman, that’s a trip by plane to Perth and then 1200 km north by car. Other trips were on dirt roads.

“We needed to test our theory with evidence,” says Dr Walsh. Then an international conflict, scientists’ style, broke out.

Researchers in Namibia and Angola joined in, some adopting the views of the German – Israeli – Australians, who insist the patterns were rare, and disregarded the termites despite working in the same areas as the Walsh team.

To complicate the story, a different German-led team demonstrated the circles in Namibian and Angola are from termites not plant self-organisation. In the Namibian case, they say it is sand termites who eat roots. Whereas, in Australia, the circles are occupied by harvester termites who eat dead grass.

The Walsh team showed that the termites “occupy the pavements and maintain them.

“But we can’t say termites created the pavements because we’re also suggesting that the pavements near Newman are possibly from the Pleistocene, perhaps the oldest persistent animal structures in Australia.”

[Pleistocene is the geological epoch that lasted from about 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago, spanning the earth’s most recent period of repeated glaciations and melts.]

Dr Walsh says further knowledge about the origin of the circles could be obtained by methods such as carbon dating and optical thermoluminescence dating “for which we haven’t got the money.

“This debate continues today. Just last month the German-Israeli-Australian team critiqued our findings so Nature invited us to write an article of reply.”

Unidentified species of flying termites at Ilparpa, photo by Josef Schofield.

This is where logically the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would come in, with its scientists and technology. Wrong. 

Dr Walsh’s former employer shut down its office in Alice Springs in 2017.

“Following the neglect then closure of CSIRO, if it wasn’t for our volunteer work a flawed international theory would remain dominant across at least 10 international research papers,” she says. 

“This reduction or attrition of Australian desert scientists comes at a cost for accurate understanding of Australian arid desert systems. 

“Over 63 years more than 200 people worked at CSIRO in Alice Springs.

“When I came here in 1993 there were about 15 to 20. Since 2017, there’s been zero CSIRO Alice staff. It’s a national disgrace. 

“In a continent that is 70% arid there is very little national science being done that’s based here despite the needs.

“Thankfully, there’s still Charles Darwin University, NT Parks and Wildlife and what happens at Desert Knowledge, but that nation-wide, internationally recognised research that came out of CSIRO has been cut.

“This also means there are fewer young scientists having the opportunity to learn from people who know our dynamic, complex, ancient systems. 

“We’re reducing the next generation of ecologists and their opportunities to work with and learn from senior people who understand these systems. This is at a time when Australia touts our commitment to Indigenous people and two-way knowledge sharing between Indigenous people and scientists.” 

Undeterred the team rolled up its sleeves, using crow bars, manually digging trenches, plus a “magical tool” very similar to a hair dryer, to gently blow away dust as digging shatters “the capping that keeps the whole structure in place”.

They revealed the galleries and chambers and chaff stores and living areas that tunnel the subterranean structure.

Dr Danae Moore and Mr Schofield examine harvester termite pavement at Australian Wildlife Conservancy Newhaven Sanctuary. 

On one trip, three of them dug 60 trenches across 24 pavements over five days. They found 100% of bare circles had termite structures and 40% had live termites.

The worries continued, says Dr Walsh: “Who’s going to pay for the fuel? Whose motorcar can we borrow? What income will I forego to do this crazy work?” 

But it wasn’t all bad: “In some ways it was easier to do this work outside of institutions. 

“We didn’t have to fill out occupational health and safety forms. We didn’t have to report where we were going and at what hour of the day. Do radio schedules. We had more freedom.”

Some days they had a house to go back to “and wash the red dust off us”.

Other nights they slept in swags and cooked on the open fire. 

Dr Walsh doesn’t mind camping out: “I love it. There is lots to learn. 

“The real challenges have been in the desk work, writing, revisions and finding a journal to publish in. Nature publishes less than 10% of the articles submitted. We had to go through an arduous review process with five reviewers and several editors.”

Out in the bush “we were a small team. We were sometimes surveying well into the night. They are long days. Sometimes it was hot. 

“One time we almost got burned out by a cattle mustering crew who thought that our field work car, an old car, was abandoned. 

“The musterers were burning off spinifex to create food for their cattle. 

“Some people say the spinifex grasslands are ‘rubbish country’,” says Dr Walsh.

“And yet it’s actually incredibly productive, but the productivity is partly underground. Then in high rainfall periods there is suddenly all the life and activity, when the termites come out to harvest spinifex or fly off to reproduce.”

Sections of harvester termite world collected from windrow by Josef Schofield and sliced by Sally Mumford and Dr Walsh. In 2024, these pieces are touring nationally in the art exhibition ‘Clay on Country’. 

So, to the Alice Springs newcomers who drive, fly or camp around Central Australia, look out for termite pavements and their spot patterns and imagine the lives underground and their ancient history.

IMAGES at top: Aerial photo of fairy circles on Nyiyaparli country by Mike Gillam. Painting titled Wartunyuma (edible flying termites) by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Anmatyerr, Warlpiri and Arrernte man. With permission from National Museum of Australia, © estate of the artist, licensed by Papunya Tula Artists and Aboriginal Artists Agency for the research.

The paper authors are: Fiona Walsh, Gladys Karimarra Bidu, Ngamaru Karimarra Bidu, Theo Evans, Thelma Milangka Judson, Peter Kendrick, Alice Nampijinpa Michaels, Danae Moore, Matilda Nelson, Carolyn Oldham, Josef Schofield, Ashley Sparrow, Muuki Karimarra Taylor, Purungu Desmond Taylor, Lee Nangala Wayne, Carol Milangka Williams and Martu elders and experts (2023). First Peoples knowledge leads scientists to reveal “fairy circles” and termite linyji (circles) are linked. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 3 April 2023.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Like others I have puzzled over these circles since first seeing them from the air close to 60 years ago (the old Fokker Friendships flew lower and gave a better view).
    On the ground I pondered the “plant organising hypothesis” (I was not smart enough to call it that).
    Congratulations and thanks to Dr Fiona Walsh and co-authors for shedding new light on these circles.

  2. Timely research as the buffel grass invasion continues apace.
    This is much more than one plant species replacing others.
    Buffel destroys an entire ecosystem.

  3. Hi Robert: It’s gratifying to read such comments as they affirm interest in the observations from long ago.
    Do you have any old photos from that era that show the circles? And even better with lat/long locations. If so, I’d be interested to see them.
    My father would have liked your reply, he was a passenger in MMA Fokkers in WA in the 60s and 70s between Perth and the Pilbara and spoke of them fondly.
    He too had seen the circles and pondered. Decades later he sponsored and helped in our recent research.
    In 2018, he visited some circles NE of Leonora, (I’d seen them on Google Earth) and he wrote lat/longs in the sand veneers that sometimes cover the termitaria surface. Dad passed away in May 2023 and his last full sentence to me was “keep doing what you’re doing”.

  4. @ Fiona: Very gratifying to see you name your co-authors.
    Not just ecology, but all matters affecting our beloved Central Australia are subjected to “discovery” announcements, which far too often beg the question “did they ask the locals?”
    There are exceptions, such as the Warlpiri Encyclopaeic Dictionary which lists five pages of contributors.
    Your combination of professionalism, devotion and humility is admirable. As your father said, keep at it!

  5. Ralph, I agree Buffel grass is destroying ecosystems.
    Grass harvester termites and buffel grass seem to have complex relations. There’s observations but to my knowledge no systematic study of them.
    In the exceptionally long hot dry of 2019, near Alice Springs the low harvester mounds seemed to be the only things that were “growing” or expanding. So, on one hand, an indication that grass harvester termites eat dead Buffel grass, so perhaps benefit from the weed scourge.
    Alex Nelson has observed similar. On the other hand, Buffel grass infestations have contributed to intensifying wildfires regimes that appear to be razing the spinifex grasslands of Central Australia.
    The effects of clear-felling of spinifex and the harvester termites who make the circles is unclear.
    Google Earth observations indicate that, unfortunately, the circle patterns are getting scarcer with wildfires.
    On the ground, we’ve observed some spinifex ecosystems that appear to have “flipped” into shorter lived grasses or bare ground. Lower rainfall, higher temps, intensifying winds etc may make it difficult for spinifex seedlings to reestablish.
    So what will the termites eat? What will the creatures who eat termites eat?
    I get a little reassurance that at least harvester termites might persist where there is Buffel grass, maybe. But there’s lots of unknown including the taxonomy of harvester termites.

  6. Congratulations on the hard work and thanks for taking the trouble to write it up properly.
    It is so important and I agree that the defunding of CSIRO in arid lands work is disgraceful, and negligent.
    What a fascinating story too!

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