A mathematician who decodes the patterns stamped out by life

Jan. 22, 2018

Corina Tarnita deciphers bizarre patterns in the soil created by competing life-forms. She’s found that they can reveal whether an ecosystem is thriving or on the verge of collapse. Of all the patterns Tarnita explores, one of the most enchantingly enigmatic are fairy circles: barren round patches that dot the grasslands of Namibia like pepperoni slices on a pizza. They can persist as long as 75 years, but their cause has been hotly debated. Some scientists argue that termite colonies build and maintain the bare circles, while others blame them on plants battling for water across the arid landscape. In January, Tarnita and her colleagues published an article in Nature that suggested a compromise: that both processes together, acting on different scales, could imprint the observed pattern on the ecosystem.

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