Lake Natron Mummies: Waters Transform Animals Into Stone?

Lake Natron, nestled in the heart of the Rift Valley, serves as the cherished breeding place for the endangered lesser flamingo. These elegant, long-legged birds thrive here, but Lake Natron becomes a harsh, unforgiving land for all other creatures. The lake’s waters are intensely alkaline, becoming a final resting place for numerous small birds. Nick Brandt creatively employed these bird carcasses, which adorn the shores of this Tanzanian lake, as eerie subjects for his new and haunting photography series. In this complete article, you will learn all there is to know about the Lake Natron Mummies.

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A calcified fish eagle on its perch. Nick Brandt / Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery | Lake Natron Mummies

Natron’s temperature usually rests at a warm 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and it takes on a blood-red hue due to the presence of bacteria—the only life forms that can endure its perilous alkaline environment. Recently, it has gained notoriety for its tendency to wash up small animals on its shores, each delicately encased in a crusty shroud.

Nick Brandt was captivated by the remarkably well-preserved remains of bats, flamingos, eagles, and swallows. This eerie phenomenon inspired him to create a series of photographs to document the extraordinary occurrence.

“I stumbled upon these creatures—birds and bats of all kinds—scattered along the northern Tanzanian shoreline of Lake Natron,” Brandt emailed NBC News. “I photographed them as I discovered them on the shore, arranging them in lifelike positions to breathe a semblance of life back into them.”

Brandt’s striking photographs are currently on exhibit at the Hasted Kraeutler Gallery in New York City and are set to be featured in a photo anthology by Abrams Books. While his images have been circulating online, he has only begun to scratch the surface of the lake’s offerings. The lake has thousands more impeccably preserved carcasses, as its extreme alkalinity prevents decomposition, effectively pickling the creatures.

David Harper, an ecologist from the University of Leicester who has made four visits to Lake Natron, explained, “If an animal perishes elsewhere, it decomposes rapidly, but along the lake’s edge, it becomes encrusted in salt and remains intact for eternity.”

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Flamingos are some of the lucky birds that can travel across the lake, which is 30 miles wide at its longest point. Still, some of those birds die, too. Nick Brandt / Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery | Lake Natron Mummies

When small birds or bats attempt to cross the vast 12- by 30-mile expanse of the lake but fail, they often plummet into its unforgiving depths. Likewise, insects like beetles and locusts meet a similar fate. This arid region experiences significant water level fluctuations due to its scorching temperatures. When the water recedes, it leaves behind the lifeless bodies on the shoreline, their forms coated in a veneer of salt, mirroring the way Brandt first encountered them.

But what led to this lake’s inhospitable conditions? The “salt” within it differs from the typical table salt sourced from seawater. Instead, it consists of magmatic limestone, formed deep within the Earth, spewed forth in liquid lava flows, and propelled high into the sky as ash clouds reaching staggering heights of 10 miles.

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A calcified dove, from Nick Brandt’s book Across The Ravaged Land, published by Abrams, New York.Nick Brandt / Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery | Lake Natron Mummies

The culprit behind this unusual phenomenon is Ol Doinyo Lengai, an ancient volcano situated just south of Lake Natron, known to be a fascination for petrologists. According to Hannes Mattsson, a Swiss Institute of Technology researcher in Zurich, this volcano stands apart from others. Most volcanoes typically release silicate materials, but Ol Doinyo Lengai is the sole entity on our planet that emits “natrocarbonatites” – a unique, cool, and flowing dark substance.

The ashy remnants washed down by rainwater eventually find their way into the lake, elucidating why the lifeless animals washed ashore appear as if they’ve been submerged in a bucket of cement. Nick Brandt noted, “The water would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds.”

The hazardous nature of Lake Natron is precisely what makes it an undisturbed breeding ground for flamingos. Except for a remarkably resilient bacterium, no other life thrives in the eerily tranquil Natron, which deters larger animals from visiting in search of food or fishing opportunities.

Consequently, the Lake Narton Flamingos congregate in this desolate terrain after nourishing themselves on spirulina algae from nearby lagoons. When the water levels align just right, they engage in courtship rituals on the fleeting salt islands and fashion mud nests from volcanic dust. Even in the best times, a few flamingos embarking on this journey may not survive. If they happen to plunge into the lake, they remain encapsulated in a salty cement-like embrace until Lake Natron decides it’s time to release them.

More ‘Still Life’ Photos of Petrified Animals at Lake Natron

Lake Natron, nestled in the northern reaches of Tanzania, boasts an exceptionally high soda and salt concentration. When animals meet their fate within its waters, a fascinating process of calcification takes hold as they desiccate, yielding petrified “mummies” of birds and bats.

Renowned photographer Nick Brandt visited this remarkable lake, capturing a compelling series of photographs showcasing these petrified creatures aptly titled “Petrified.”

Brandt shares his perspective with CityRyde, saying, “The idea of portraying deceased animals in the very place they once thrived is what drew me to photograph these beings in the series. I serendipitously encountered diverse birds and bats strewn along Lake Natron’s shoreline.”

The precise cause of these creatures’ demise remains a mystery. Still, one theory suggests that the lake’s extraordinarily reflective surface may bewilder the birds, leading to unintentional collisions with the water, akin to how birds often collide with reflective glass windows.

Brandt adds, “The lake’s soda and salt levels are so elevated that they could strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within mere seconds. I captured these creatures in the exact state I found them on the shore, then carefully positioned them in lifelike poses, rejuvenating them – reanimated, alive again in death.”

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© Nick Brandt. Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY | Lake Natron Mummies
lake natron mummies
© Nick Brandt. Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, NY | Lake Natron Mummies

You can explore more of Brandt’s work on his website.

And here are a few more photos of Lake Narton Mumies by Shah Rogers Photography.

lake natron mummies
Two Lesser Flamingo Mummies | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.
lake natron mummies
Mummified Bird | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.
lake natron mummies
Mummified Bat | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.
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Another Mummified Bird | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.
lake natron mummies
Lesser Flamingo Chick Mummy | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.
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Lesser Flamingo Mummy | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.
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Another Mummified Bat | Credit: Lake Natron Mummies Gallery by Shah Rogers Photography.

Takeaway: Lake That Turns Animals to Stone? Not Quite

Lake Natron in Tanzania is one of Africa’s most tranquil lakes, yet it holds a captivating secret – the ability to transform creatures into stone-like figures, creating extraordinary photographs.

This tranquility is paradoxically underlined by the lake’s water, which possesses an extreme pH of 10.5, capable of harming the unadapted animals’ skin and eyes. The alkalinity stems from sodium carbonate and minerals from the surrounding hills, even mirroring the preservative qualities used in ancient Egyptian mummification.

Contrary to some reports, creatures don’t instantly petrify upon contact with the water. Instead, Lake Natron fosters a vibrant ecosystem, embracing salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, flamingos, tilapia, and the algae-sustaining flamingo flocks. Photographer Nick Brandt brought this eerie charm to life in his 2013 book, “Across the Ravaged Land.”

Brandt encountered lifeless flamingos and other creatures adorned with chalky sodium carbonate outlines, arranging them as if reawakening them in death. More than 2 million lesser flamingos rely on Lake Natron as a key breeding site during their breeding season. They craft nests on islands formed during the dry season.

This lake is one of two alkaline wonders in East Africa, the other being Lake Bahi. They are self-contained, nourished by hot springs and small rivers, not draining into any river or sea. Their temperatures can surge to 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) in scorching conditions.

Regrettably, the lake’s serenity and flamingo community face a threat from a proposed hydroelectric plant on the Ewaso Ngiro River, the primary lake feeder. Despite its isolation – only discovered by Europeans in 1954 – Lake Natron lacks protective measures for its endangered flamingo residents.

Make sure you check our guide for the best lakes in Switzerland.

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