Art and Science: This Alkaline African Lake Turns Animals into Stone

This Alkaline African Lake Turns Animals into Stone

A calcified flamingo, preserved by the highly basic  waters of Tanzania’s Lake Natron and photographed by Nick Brandt. © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

In 2011, when he was traveling to shoot photos for a new book on the  disappearing wildlife of East Africa, Across the Ravaged Land, photographer Nick Brandt came across a truly astounding place: A  natural lake that seemingly turns all sorts of animals into stone.

“When I saw those creatures for the first time alongside the lake, I was  completely blown away,” says Brandt. “The idea for me, instantly, was to take  portraits of them as if they were alive.”

A bat © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

The ghastly Lake  Natron, in northern Tanzania, is a salt lake—meaning that water flows in, but doesn’t flow out,  so it can only escape by evaporation. Over time, as water evaporates, it leaves  behind high concentrations of salt and other minerals, like at the Dead Sea and  Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Unlike those other lakes, though, Lake Natron is extremely alkaline, due to high amounts of the chemical natron (a mix of sodium carbonate and baking soda) in  the water. The water’s pH has been measured as high as 10.5—nearly as high as ammonia. “It’s so high that it would strip the  ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds,” Brandt says.

A swallow © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

As you might expect, few creatures live in the harsh waters, which can reach  140 degrees Fahreinheit—they’re home to just a single fish species (Alcolapia latilabris), some algae and a colony of  flamingos that feeds on the algae and breeds on the shore.

Frequently, though, migrating birds crash into the lake’s surface. Brandt  theorizes that the highly-reflective, chemical dense waters act like a glass  door, fooling birds into thinking they’re flying through empty space (not long  ago, a helicopter pilot tragically fell victim to the same illusion, and his  crashed aircraft was rapidly corroded by the lake’s waters). During dry season,  Brandt discovered, when the water recedes, the birds’ desiccated,  chemically-preserved carcasses wash up along the coastline.

“It was amazing. I saw entire flocks of dead birds all washed ashore  together, lemming-like,” he says. “You’d literally get, say, a hundred finches  washed ashore in a 50-yard stretch.”

A songbird © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

Over the course of about three weeks, Brandt worked with locals to collect  some of the most finely-preserved specimens. “They thought I was absolutely  insane—some crazy white guy, coming along offering money for people to basically  go on a treasure hunt around the lake for dead birds,” he says. “When, one time,  someone showed up with an entire, well-preserved fish eagle, it was  extraordinary.”

Just coming into contact with the water was dangerous. “It’s so caustic, that  even if you’ve got the tiniest cut, it’s very painful,” he says. “Nobody would  ever swim in this—it’d be complete madness.”

A fish eagle © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

For the series of photos, titled “The Calcified” and featured in this month’s  issue of New ScientistBrandt posed the carcasses in  life-like positions. “But the bodies themselves  are exactly the way the birds were found,” he insists. “All I  did was position them on the branches, feeding them through their stiff  talons.”

A dove © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

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