With its bright red and orange colors, Lake Natron is definitely one of Tanzania’s most spectacular sights. Its beauty comes with a price, though: most creatures that drink from the lake will end up dead.
In northern Tanzania, just next to Kenya, lies the beautiful, and notorious Lake Natron. It’s 35 miles long from north to south, and 14 miles wide. Most of its water comes from hot springs and the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River. Since the water flowing into the lake leaches through the surrounding bedrock that is composed of alkaline, the lake’s water is very salty. It also contains high amounts of sodium carbonate decahydrate called natron, hence the name Lake Natron.
The climate there is so arid that most of the small amount of rain the area receives evaporates before hitting the surface. Even the water temperature is usually between 104 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (40 and 60 Celsius).
Although most creatures can’t handle the hot lake water, it’s a perfect environment for a salt-loving microorganism called cyanobacteria. It is also responsible for turning the lake red. The photosynthesizing pigment in the cyanobacteria colors the deeper parts of the water red, while the shallow parts of the lake take on a more orange blush.
Even though the colorful surface can be very charming, it’s a fatal trap for most animals. The alkaline waters of Lake Natron can reach a pH level (a measure of how acidic water is – it ranges from 0 to 14) as high as 12, while life generally prefers a pH level closer to 7. The chemicals in the water burn the skin and the eyes. If a creature drinks from the water, it will most probably end up dead as a result of the tremendous damage to the cells, nervous system, and livers. That said, no one actually knows for certain exactly how the animals die. Some speculate that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, just like a large glass window, causing them to crash into the lake.
Because of the lake’s unique characteristics, animals that die in the water are calcified. It’s often said that the lake turns these unfortunate animals into stones, but in reality, it’s more like a mummification process. Photographer Nick Brandt has captured pictures of mummified birds and bats that met their fate in the toxic waters of Lake Natron. The series of eerie photos present the deadly power of Lake Natron in a truly unique way.
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While Lake Natron is a death sentence for most animals, lesser flamingos are among the few creatures that aren’t affected by the toxicity of the lake. In fact, they do so well in these harsh conditions that the lake is the only natural breeding ground for more than 2.5 million endangered flamingos, and 75% of the world’s flamingo population is born around Lake Natron.
The reason why flamingos thrive around the area is that the lake acts as a natural barrier between their nests and predators. They can also feed on the different algae and the cyanobacteria that can be found in the lake; actually, it’s their preferred meal.
The toxicity of the water isn’t a problem for these animals: their skin is so tough that the lake doesn’t burn them. Furthermore, the glands in their heads filter out water and other chemicals. For flamingos, the only side effect of consuming cyanobacteria is their famous pink hue!
Lake Natron is a prime example of a natural wonder. The home, and breeding grounds it represents for flamingos, make it even more important to preserve it in all of its beauty. The unique biodiversity was named to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance by Tanzania, recognizing the fundamental ecological functions of the lake.
Sources: 1, 2, 3