There is a lake in a remote corner of Africa that represents one of the most extreme and inhospitable bodies of water on the continent. With its chemical composition and temperature daunting to most lifeforms, it’s also holds the curious ability to not only lull birds and other creatures into its clutches and to their dooms, but also to slowly turn them into statues. For on the shores of this enigmatic African lake, there are bizarre corpses of various creatures that seem to have the appearance of being made of stone, as if the waters of this stygian lake have petrified them into rock caricatures of what they once were in life; a macabre testament to the wondrous, and often weird powers of nature.
Lake Natron lies within the Arusha Region of northern Tanzania, near its border with Kenya. It is a saline and soda lake that is 57 kilometers (35 mi) long and 22 kilometers (14 mi) wide, and mostly shallow, reaching depths typically no more than 3 meters (9.8 feet). The lake gets its name from its high levels of natron, a compound composed mostly of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, which are deposited within the lake via rainfall runoff from the Great Rift Valley volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai. With its high salt content, extreme alkalinity levels reaching as high as pH levels of 12, and scorching temperatures reaching up to 60 °C (140 °F), most lifeforms find its waters to be caustic and inhospitable. It is so caustic in fact, that it can burn the eyes and nostrils of animals that are not accustomed to it, and is deadly to many creatures. The only types of organisms that call this place home are various types of algae and salt loving microorganisms such as cyanobacteria, which teem in these waters when salinity levels rise due to evaporation, as well as certain species of extremophile fish such as the alkaline tilapia (Alcolapia alcalica). It is the cyanobacteria that give the lake its characteristic unusual, eerie coloring of various hues of red and orange with their photosynthesizing pigments.
As disagreeable as the lake’s environment is for higher organisms, it is nevertheless a favorite haunt of thousands of birds, including a large number of lesser pink flamingoes, which feed off of the blue-green algae found in abundance here and use the lake as a major breeding ground. The alkaline morass of saline water and volcanic ash also affords some protection from predators, which typically shun the alien wasteland of the lake. In fact, the flamingoes have become so dependent on this one particular lake as a breeding ground that they have in recent years become an endangered species.
Lake Natron has accrued some amount of notoriety for its purported ability to turn any living creature that comes into contact with it a “living fossil.” This effect, while being somewhat overplayed in the media, has some basis in fact. It is not an instantaneous effect, but rather a gradual process. Animals that die here have the tendency to become petrified statues over time, a rare preservation phenomenon caused by the unique chemical makeup of the lake, which encrusts the carcasses with layers of salt, sodium carbonates, and sodium bicarbonates. The carcasses take on a chalky, stony appearance in a process somewhat similar to that undergone by Egyptian mummies.
The phenomenon was most famously chronicled by the photographer Nick Brandt, who found the perfectly preserved and mummified remains of birds and bats along the lake’s shoreline and decided to photograph them. Brandt said of the phenomenon:
I unexpectedly found the creatures – all manner of birds and bats – washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania. 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. The water has an extremely high soda and salt content. The soda and salt causes the creatures to calcify, perfectly preserved, as they dry.
The photographer also complained that the caustic environment and soda content of the lake was so extreme that it could strip the ink off his boxes of film in seconds. Brandt went about posing and photographing these eerie petrified mummies for his book Across the Ravaged Land, published by Abrams Books. The book certainly features a procession of bizarre and creepy images of animals that appear to have been instantaneously transformed to stone through some almost magical means.
The miraculous Lake Natron has been listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance due to its unique biodiversity and has also been recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as an important ecoregion. Nevertheless, it has faced some threats on recent years due to increased logging in its watersheds and a proposed hydroelectric plant to be built in Kenya. There is also a proposed soda ash plant that is expected to be built along the shore pf the lake with the aim of pumping water from it and extracting the sodium carbonate that lies within it. These threats could very well spell disaster or the millions of lesser pink flamingos that rely on the lake as an integral breeding ground.
A lake that can turn animals into statues is not something that you see everyday. This is a place with a rich heritage of unique physical properties and an indispensable sanctuary for rare birds; a giver of both life and death. It is a shame that the human machine of progress and environmental exploitation moves on, threatening to silence this majestic lake once and for all. Perhaps one day there will be no more living things left here, and the only testament to its once thriving ecosystem will be the very stone-like mummies that litter its shores; petrified, eerie throwbacks to a time when this place once thrummed with life.