Salty Tanzania Lake Turns Birds Into Stone-Like Statues

Oct 8, 2013

Correction 10/9/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Lake Natron was 402 miles wide. The lake is 402 square miles.

A lake in Tanzania has come into the spotlight recently thanks to a series of eerie photographs released by photographer Nick Brandt. In his book, “Across the Ravaged Land,” Brandt shows the world what happens to some wildlife when it’s submerged Lake Natron, and it’s not pretty.

But how did it happen?

Dr. David Harper is a professor at the University of Leicester who has studied wildlife at Lake Natron. He said it’s a lethal equation: the regional environment plus the composition and characteristics of the lake equals certain death for winged animals that accidently come in contact with it.

First, the lake is very large – 402 square miles – and birds, bats and other flying critters can’t always make it across.

But when they try to land, or even worse, fall in, they become coated with water that has an extremely high concentration of sodium carbonate, a salt-like mineral.  It’s so caustic that only one type of fish – Tilapia grahami – and certain bacteria can actually live in it.

But it’s the temperature of the air around the lake that seals the fate of these animals.  It is very, very hot, so water evaporates very quickly, leaving only the crust of salt on the animal.

“If you imagine a bird getting water on its feathers it would very quickly be too heavy to fly,” said Harper.  “So things that get caught in the lake do die because they just get covered in salt very quickly.”

It’s that same salt that mummifies the creatures and preserves them into the calcified, statue-like figures that Brandt stumbled upon on the edge of the lake.

“I took these creatures as I found them on the shoreline, and then placed them in ‘living’ positions, bringing them back to ‘life’, as it were,” Brandt said. “Reanimated, alive again in death.”