“Lake That Turns Animals to Stone” Not so Deadly as Photos Suggest

If you’re a natural history fan and have been online at all this week, chances are you’ve seen photographer Nick Brandt’s stunning photos of mummified birds and bats along the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Natron. The gloomy images make the lake look like a living museum where animals fall into the water and immediately turn to stone. But as Brandt himself has noted, the images are more art than science, and these pictures obscure the resiliency of life in and around the lake.

As Brandt told New Scientist and other news sources, he collected the dead animals and posed them on their dark perches. The flamingos and bats didn’t really become petrified in place, as if calcified by ominous clouds of salt-filled smog. Nor are such carcasses totally unique. Dead pelicans, seagulls, and other birds take on a similar appearance as salt covers their bodies along the margins of the Great Salt Lake near my home. And, just like the Great Salt Lake, Lake Natron is hardly lifeless.

BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker has already covered the peculiar fish that live in the alkaline waters of the strange lake. Even though the lake is particularly warm and salty, Koerth-Baker notes, algae within the lake supports a species of tilapia adapted to the unusual conditions. That’s not all. Lake Natron is also an essential breeding ground for the Lesser Flamingo.

The importance of Lake Natron to the Lesser Flamingo isn’t a secret. BBC natural history unit programs and even a Disney documentary have featured the flamingos who congregate in this picturesque place. Lake Natron is a hotspot for beautiful life. And for those animals that do become interred here, animals don’t immediately die and turn to stone upon touching the lake. Those that fall in and perish are exceptionally preserved by the salts that make the lake so unique, but the lake’s surface isn’t an aquatic equivalent of the Medusa’s gaze.

In some ways, Brandt’s photos mask the importance of Lake Natron to life in and around the body of water. For the Lesser Flamingo, Lake Natron is a singular, prime breeding site. That mating ground is now under threat from industry.

Lake Natron is such an attractive mating site for flamingos because the water stays low enough to prevent nest flooding but remains high enough that there’s a barrier between predators and the conical nests the birds build. Two developments threaten the birds. A dam and a soda ash extraction factory  will dramatically alter the ecology of the lake. The human activity may directly drive off the skittish birds, not to mention the ways both projects might alter the ecology of the water and mud the flamingos have come to rely upon. The spectacle the Lesser Flamingo puts on at Lake Natron may soon disappear. From the look of Brandt’s pictures, the place is already dead. Let’s hope his images are not a portent of what’s to become of this spectacular place.

2 thoughts on ““Lake That Turns Animals to Stone” Not so Deadly as Photos Suggest

  1. Hi Brian,
    I’ve been a long-time reader – since back in the ScienceBlogs days – and I’ve always appreciated what you do here so I really hope this comes off as constructively as possible, but I kind of feel like you’re off-target in your criticism here. I read the breathless Gizmodo article on it with the abysmal headline decreeing “Any Animal That Touches This Lethal Lake Turns to Stone,” and yeah, it upset me because I know it’s not true and the otherwise-very-intelligent friend of mine on Facebook who linked it, clearly believed it. But I see that as Gizmodo’s fault, or, more broadly, the fault of the entire culture of traffic-driven “buzz news” websites that reward sensationalism over fact. I don’t see it as the fault of the photographer or the photographs themselves. If anything, it seems like the photographer was open about how the photos were staged (as you yourself have noted, that’s a degree of transparency most nature documentaries lack).

    My concern is – and maybe I’m totally off-base here – that your criticism seems to be that art work such as his photos that do not explicitly portray reality are dangerous when anyone can misconstrue them as reality. And I just don’t see art as working that way. People have and always will misinterpret and believe in fantasy, and I don’t think these photos (unlike, say, Animal Planet’s “Mermaids” shows) were a deliberate attempt to misinform people. Again, maybe I’m totally off, but it seems like you were criticizing the work itself and not the messengers who willfully misinterpreted it here. I do apologize if that was not the case.

  2. I think that the photographer must have posed the birds as he did because he was aware of the drama of the images as so depicted. I am concerned about the possible repercussions of the message this imparts. I think that the crucial issue here is that the rich ecosystem of Lake Natron is under serious threat. By portraying this as a dead or even “killer” lake, I fear that the positions of those who may damage this ecosystem are strengthened. There have been moves to put a soda ash chemical plant on the shores of Lake Natron, to exploit the alkalinity. http://www.birdlife.org/news/pr/2007/10/lake_natron_flamingos.html. And water diversions, and a dam in Kenya, are also a threat. The waters here have a complex balance. Maintaining this ecosystem is essential for the survival of the Lesser Flamingo. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1642359313000037?np=y

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