Birds are being turned to stone by the waters of Lake Natron in Tanzania, Africa. The lake, named for the naturally occurring mix of chemicals including soda ash and baking soda in its waters, is so salty, fish can only survive along the edges where the saline content is somewhat lower.
Photographer Nick Brandt captured images of birds and other animals killed by the high alkaline content of the lake. He picked up animals washed up onto the shore of the lake and placed them in pre-mortem positions for his photographs. The dead animals are preserved in eerie detail, from birds to bats; each one has been slowly turned to stone by the waters of Lake Natron.
The lake is fed by a river and mineral hot springs in the area, but has no outlet, so these waters have nowhere to go but up. Evaporation of the surface creates islands of exposed salt deposits in the lake, some large enough to be recorded on satellite images.
The only creatures that are surviving in Lake Natron include a single species of fish, alkaline tilapia (Alcolapia latilabris), and cyanobacteria, a type of blue-green algae. This algae gives the lake a rust-colored appearance from space. The lake temperature can rise to 120 degrees (F), which makes it far too hot for any other kind of wildlife to live there, but lesser flamingos use the lake as feeding and nesting grounds. The flamingos eat the blue-green algae of the lake and use the salt-islands and the outer edges for breeding. Lake Natron is the one of very few places in the world where these birds breed. Due to the caustic nature of the lake and the surrounding landscape, the flamingos can breed without fear of predators.
During the dry season, Lake Natron’s pH levels can rise to 10.5, which is just below ammonia on the scale of caustic substances. This makes the lake highly corrosive, and contributes to the “stoning” of so many birds and mammals that fall victim to the water. The mineral content can get so high that the water feels “thick” to the touch.Theories suggest the animals are confused by the glassy surface of the lake and get trapped there, slowly calcifying because the water is so “heavy” they cannot escape once they come in contact with it.
This phenomenon is being brought to light in the third installment of Brandt’s photo book series, entitled Across the Ravaged Land (Pt. 1 2010-2011 & Pt. 2 2011-2012). Brandt has already published the first two installments in the series, On This Earth (2000-2004) and A Shadow Falls (2005-2007, 2008-2009) and documents the disappearing wildlife of East Africa. Brandt’s work shows us the reality of man’s effect on earth. The stark beauty of his work catches the observer off guard, and once seen, cannot be forgotten. Brandt highlights what we humans rarely see: the results of our progression across the planet and the creatures we may harm in the course of that progression.
- Naturalist Jane Gooddall has contributed an introduction to Brandt’s compilation of the first two photo books of the series.
- The lesser flamingos that nest around Lake Natron get their pink tinge from the cyanobacteria they eat from the lake.
- Lesser flamingos are classified as a “near threatened” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature
- Ancient Egyptians used natron to dry out the dead in preparation for mummification.
Written by: Brandi Tasby