Tanzania’s Deadly Lake Natron Turns Animals Into Calcified Statues

By Philip Ross on October 1, 2013 4:47 PM EDT

lake natron 1
Lake Natron in northern Tanzania is so salty, anything that falls into it and dies becomes calcified. It’s also the main breeding ground of East Africa’s 2.5 million Lesser Flamingoes. (Photo: Creative Commons)
lake natron 2
Lake Natron’s alkalinity ranges between pH and pH 10.5. Seawater has a pH between 7 and 9. (Photo: Flickr/Guillaume Baviere)

Lake Natron, a saline lake in northern Tanzania near the border with Kenya, is anything but paradise. In fact, most wildlife knows to avoid it because of how harsh conditions are there. Grist reports that temperatures at the lake can reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and it has an alkalinity somewhere between pH9 and pH 10.5 (seawater has a pH between 7 and 9).

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The water is so salty and full of salt-loving microorganisms, it's actually poisonous to many larger fauna, like hyenas. But astonishingly, the shallow lake, whose depths reach only about 10 feet, is the only breeding area in East Africa for 2.5 million Lesser Flamingoes, the smallest species of flamingo. The birds brave the unforgiving environment at Lake Natron, feeding off the blue-green algae that grow there and keeping safe from predators who avoid it.

Sometimes, salt islands form in the lake during evaporation. Flamingoes seize the opportunity to nest on these islands, but not without some risk involved. Some flamingoes inevitably die in the lake, and when they do, their bodies become calcified, and their carcasses look like tiny statues. Photographer Nick Brandt decided to photograph the petrified animals. He even removed their carcasses from the lake and placed the birds in different positions, like in a tree branch or floating on top of the water's surface.

"I could not help but photograph them," he told New Scientist. "No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake's surface confuses them, and like birds crashing into plate glass windows, they crash into the lake." 

He's photographed a number of birds that died in the lake, including a dove, sea eagle, a flamingo and a bat.

"We scoured the shores picking up a variety of birds including hornbills, flamingoes, starlings, doves, bee-eaters, mouse-birds, and Quelea that had been mummified by the salts in the water," Ethan Kinsey, who travelled with Brandt, recalled in a blog post. "The small invertebrates, fish, and bats that stood frozen in their death pose were fascinating."

His photographs appear in a book titled "Across the Ravaged Land." You can see some of his photos of calcified birds at Lake Natron here.

Natron is actually a naturally occurring compound made of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. The substance is white or colorless, and can have flecks of gray or yellow in it. Deposits of natron are often found in salt lakes and form through crystallization when the lake dries up. The natron at Lake Natron comes from volcanic ash from the Great Rift Valley.

Read more from iScience Times:

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