Tanzanian lake preserves dead animals, does not turn them to stone

There's stories going around in the media over the past couple of days about a lake in Tanzania that's petrifying animals — in other words, turning them to stone. However, although the pictures of these animals are both incredible and creepy at the same time, what's going on here is much more mundane.

The pictures were taken by photographer Nick Brandt, who found the animals along the shores of Lake Natron, in northern Tanzania. The lake is named for a caustic mixture of soda ash, baking soda and sodium salts, called natron, which is dissolved in the lake water. The ancient Egyptians used natron as a household cleaner and soap, and in their mummification processes, to quickly dry out the body before burial. A side-effect of the high pH of natron is that it's very hard for bacteria to grow around it, so that also helped preserve the body.

That's really what's going on here. When a body becomes truly petrified, its cells are slowly replaced over time by rock. This is what creates things like petrified wood and dinosaur fossils. However, these animals are simply dying near the lake, their bodies get covered with a layer of natron, which dries them out and preserves them. The 'stony' look about them just comes from the the salts and sodas in the natron caking onto their skin and feathers.

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In fact, whereas a lake that actually petrified anything that came near it or touched the water would likely be a complete dead-zone for birds and animals, life thrives around Lake Natron. There are salt marshes and wetlands around the lake's shores. The environment supports salt-loving microorganisms and algae, two species of fish known as alkaline tilapia live in the waters near the lake's hot springs, and the lake is the only breeding area in eastern African for the lesser flamingo. These birds, along with greater flamingos, nest in the area every year, and it's the red algae they eat that give these birds their vibrant pink colour.

(Photos courtesy: Nick Brandt/Hasted Kraeutler Gallery)

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