By Kate Holland

Wondering what to do with your old birds and bats? The Natron Lake in northern Tanzania can turn your animals to stone with one quick dip!

Figure 1. Stony Swallow, Lake Natron, 2012, taken by Nick Brandt
Figure 1. Stony Swallow, Lake Natron, 2012, taken by Nick Brandt

Lake Natron (Figure 2) is a salt lake with particularly harsh composition derived from its very special neighbouring volcano, Oldoinyo Lengai, that donates lots of natrocarbonatities (carbonate dominated lavas which are enriched in sodium) to rainwater runoff. Combined with its hot temperatures (40oC) and highly alkaline pH (9 – 10.5) you would not think it the most hospitable lake. As threatening as it may sound it still has some predators such as irrigation and logging of the surrounds, highways and soda ash plants that would extract sodium carbonate to produce washing powder.

Figure 2. Lake Natron photograph from paulconormckenzie Flickr
Figure 2. Lake Natron photograph from paulconormckenzie Flickr

There are a number of animals that enjoy this as a habitat – unsurprisingly there are bacteria, algae, extremophile (extreme loving) fish alkaline tilapia, and North Africa’s unfortunately named Lesser Flamingo. The pink colour (and the flamingos) comes from the red photosynthetic pigments in the numerous blue green algae in the lake (and flamingos diet). A number of plants and fish can survive in the salt marshes and wetlands around the edges of the lake. Not quite the water body of death it was first made out to be…

Nick Brandt produced some very beautiful and very sensationalized photographs that had many a website convinced you could head on down to Lake Natron, put an animal in and immediately take a statue out. Brandt describes that “it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lakes surface confuses them [birds], and like birds crashing into plate glass windows they crash into the lake’. What he could have added to this statement to avoid confusion is that since there aren’t many carnivorous creatures in the lake, over time the carcasses remain extremely well preserved. As the lake level drops, they become coated with evaporites and appear like statues!! Still extremely cool and makes for some nice art deco just over a slightly longer timescale. Images appear in Brant’s book Across the Ravaged Land and can also be very easily googled.