With thousands of beautiful flamingos crowding around, at first glance Lake Natron, a salt lake in Northern Tanzania looks like your typical picturesque African landscape. But look closer and you will find something eerily unusual - Perfectly preserved dead animals strewn all along its shores. And while many have likened the lake to Medusa, the monster from Greek mythology who turned anyone that looked her in the eye to stone, most experts assert that the lake itself is not deadly.
In fact, the shallow three meters deep (9.8ft.) body of water supports a robust ecosystem that comprises of flamingos, algae and other salt loving invertebrates and even, two species of fish that thrive in the less salty outskirts. The researchers therefore believe that some of the petrified animals died from natural causes and others, because they got confused by the extremely reflective surface of the water and crashed right in.
Having said that, everyone agrees that the alkaline water of the lake that has a pH level as high as 10.5 is caustic enough to burn the skin and eyes of animals that aren't adapted to it. The high salinity is caused by the unusual lava composition of the neighboring Ol Doinvo, a rare volcano whose lava is not rich in silicate minerals but in natrocarbonatite, a naturally occurring compound that is made up largely of sodium carbonate mixed in with baking soda. Whenever it rains, the minerals and sodium carbonate from the volcano lava flow right into the lake. Since Natron is a terminal lake, meaning that it does not drain out to any river or sea and lies in an area that does not get much rainfall, the concentration of the caustic material remains high and gets to extreme levels during the summers, when most of the water evaporates. The fact that the lake sports a temperature that can exceed 106° F during the warm season, probably does not help either.
What's even more interesting is that besides corroding the living tissue, the caustic lake also helps perfectly preserve the carcass of the animal or bird as it dries, similar to how copious amounts of sodium carbonate helped maintain ancient Egyptians. As a result, the lake is surrounded by a number of rather eerie looking petrified wildlife.
While this has been going on for many centuries it has recently come to light, thanks to these images that have been captured by British photographer Nick Brandt, for his latest book 'Across the Ravaged Land'.
And though the amazing photos do make it look like the animals were 'turned to stone' as soon as they touched the waters, Nick says that it was he who brought the preserved carcasses 'back to life' by placing them on branches and even atop the water, to give them that extra eerie effect.
For those of you that are not familiar or need a refresher on the pH scale, it is the measure used by scientists to determine how acidic or alkaline (basic) a medium is. The scale goes from 1 - 14, with 1 being extremely acidic and 14, extremely basic. At a pH level of 7, distilled water is considered neutral. Lake Natron's 10.5 pH balance is definitely on the high side of basic and as Nick Brandt describes it, enough to strip the ink of his Kodak film boxes within a few seconds - A fact that you may want to keep in mind, before dipping your toes in!
Resources: Gizmondo.com, nationalgeographic.com, discovery.com