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.