Eerie Stone Birds Photographed on African Lake

The chemistry of Lake Natron's water promotes quick crystallizing.

ByJon M. Chang
October 02, 2013, 3:04 PM

Oct. 2, 2013— -- The Dead Sea may be one of the saltiest lakes on earth, but at least it doesn't turn animals to husks of their former selves. A series of eerie black and white photographs taken by Nick Brandt show birds on Lake Natron in Tanzania, as if they had looked into Medusa's eyes.

"I could not help but photograph them," said Brandt in an interview with New Scientist. He discovered the preserved wildlife along the shore of Lake Natron and posed them for his photographs.

But why do they look like stone and not roadkill?

Lake Natron itself is an alkaline environment, with a pH between 9 and 10. (A pH of 7 is neutral and 14 is the most alkaline.) Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce, an associate professor of geology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, said that a person won't immediately burn their hand after being splashed by Lake Natron's waters. "You might feel a little bit of a tingle," she told ABC News. "You'll want to wash it off because it will irritate your skin."

Liutkus-Pierce has seen other "petrified" animals while collecting fossils near the lake. "We see insects fall onto the mud flats at the edges of the lake," she said. "Water at the surface evaporates, and the high concentration of minerals in the water end up crystallizing."

The process doesn't even need a dead subject, she noted. "You can leave your footprint in the mud and a couple of hours later, you'll have white crystals all over it."

The name of the lake itself isn't named after anything in Swahili, but is actually named after an abundant mineral, natron, dissolved in the water. "The water comes from the chemistry of all the volcanic rocks in the area," said Liutkus-Pierce. "Water flows through them and picks up all of their dissolved minerals." The mineral itself is a form of sodium carbonate.

While Lake Natron isn't particularly attractive as a home for wildlife, it is a popular place to visit. Flamingoes visit the lake and use it as a breeding ground. In addition, flocks of tourists also visit Lake Natron. "Lots of people go to see the flamingoes," said Liutkus-Pierce. "It's a tourist draw."

However, tourism may put the flamingoes' breeding ground at risk. "There were some discussions about building mines in the area, but that would disrupt the environment and make it difficult for the breeding population," said Liutkus-Pierce. "That's off the table for now, but it's a place that people are interested in making sure it's protected."

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