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Lake of “Death”

October 15, 2013

There’s been lot of talk about Lake Natron recently thanks to photographer Nick Brant. He published some seriously stunning (but also mad creepy) photos of dead animals found on the shores of this lake, and they circulated around the internet with all sorts of dramatic taglines.

“Lake turns animals into stone statues!”
“Animals calcified immediately after touching waters of deadly lake!”
“ERMAHGERD MEDUSA LAKE AHHHH “

To be fair- the images were eerie, surreal, and unabashedly gorgeous. Here are some amazing examples:

(copyright Nick Brandt)

(copyright Nick Brandt)

Now, I am no stranger to hyberbole – but I do think it’s important that we at least try not to spread outright falsehoods when it comes to awesome science stuff. Articles frequently left off the important detail that all of these images were staged… as in, the dead animals were found on the shore and posed for each picture. True – they did die at the lake, and true – they were covered in mineral deposits and in various stages of calcification. But they were not instantly turned to stone upon touching the water. This lake doesn’t support MUCH wildlife, but it does support some – including an awesome flamingo population. It’s not a death trap, but it is an exclusive “badasses only” club.

I just think this lake is SO COOL in its own right, we don’t need to hype it up by saying it has superpowers. It straight up looks like blood and has an extreme enough pH to downright ruin your day. So shut up INTERNET… it doesn’t need your stupid made-up death powers.

BLUHD! (copyright Paul and Paveena McKenzie, wildencounters.net)

So, the facts. Lake Natron is in Tanzania right near Kenya and it’s super shallow – only about 10ft deep on average. It doesn’t rain much in this area, so most of the water in the lake comes from underground hot springs that provide a vertiable feast of minerals. This causes the lake to have funky chemistry – especially during the dry season when most of the water evaporates.

When this occurs, the oversaturated salts and minerals in the water begin to form deposits called “natron” (lol you clever lake-namers). This is mostly made up of stuff like sodium carbonate decahydrate (soda ash), sodium chloride (table salt), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium sulfate (stuff in laundry detergents), and a few other sodium-something-ates. These form salt beds at the shores of the lake that crack as they dry.

Salt flats are all the rage this year

But the lake and it’s shores are red sometimes! Why is that? Well, it actually has to do with the little microorganisms that live in the crazy salty water. There are extremophiles (aka badasses) like cyanobacteria that have a red pigment, so when they grow in large numbers the lake turns crimson.

The high mineral content of the water isn’t the only reason hardly anything can live there. This lake can also reach temperatures of 140˚F and can sometimes have a pH as high as 10.5 – almost as basic as ammonia. You can imagine that most animals are like, “yeah, no.”

(it would melt her plastic parts)

So big ups to Nick Brandt for taking such cool pictures. For the record, he was always honest about posing the animals to capture the dramatic scenes in his photos – it was just the silly online media outlets that hyped it up. Lake Natron is a naturally demonic place with no need for exaggeration. The more you know.

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From → General Science

3 Comments
  1. William permalink

    I remember seeing those animal pictures and thinking they were hauntingly beautiful, but never really dug into it, so thank you.

    But even better, extremophiles are awesome and I got excited when I saw them in the post (here’s where I have to declare bias because I spent 4 months mapping them and other geologic features in the backcountry of Yellowstone). They are fascinating & humbling to see in person. The colors on some are so brilliant, they look like someone cranked up the contrast in your brain.

    The microbial diversity of these places is off the charts, which just seems bizarre with how hostile they are. It’s easy to think there are only one or two types living there, but it’s a whole community! It’s not even that well understood, but they are making headway. But are you sure there are Cyanobacteria growing there? My understanding was that there is a population of haloalkaliphilic archaea that use bacteriorhodopsin for energy capture/conversion that gives them a red color.

    Either way, they are badasses and use a fused lipid monolayer (as opposed to the run of the mill bilayer) to help prevent their membranes from melting. They use crazy enzymes (extremozymes!) to help interface with the harsh environments which been adopted to do all kinds of weird things like laundry detergent enzymes. Better living through science!

  2. You have expertise in this area, so I’m sure that you are correct about haloalkaliphilic archaea contributing to the scarlet color in Lake Natron. Thank you for the extra fun facts!

    As I understand it, (and please correct me if I’m wrong!) Lake Natron is also home to cyanobacteria that are capable of producing red accessory pigments. One example would be Spirulina, which is confusingly classified as a “blue-green” algae. Not only does it potentially contribute to the color of the lake, it’s also responsible for the lovely pink plumage of the native Lesser Flamingo population. Neat, right?

    These birds are filter feeders, and this particular species likes to eat mostly Spirulina. When the red pigment is absorbed and deposited in their fat and feathers, the birds take on their well-recognized pink hue. (source: http://www.birdlife.org/flamingo/flamingo_info.html)

    So, my honest answer is “no.” I am unsure if these cyanobacteria are the sole reason for its color, but they do exist and they are potential culprits… but your haloalkaliphilic archaea are also a very real possibility! 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts, it was fun to learn more about this stuff!

    ps – your job at Yellowstone sounds completely baller

  3. William permalink

    Haha apparently you aren’t the only one who can trick people into thinking you know things 😛 I’m no expert, they’re just really interesting to me (so I probably know a little more than the average person) and your post inspired me to do a little reading.

    You were right that the cyanobacteria are there, probably even multiple species! The list that I could find that has some of the microbes present has the following cyanobacteria listed: Arthrospira platensis, Cyanospira rippkae, Synechocystis sp., Synechococcus sp., & Phormidium sp. None (from a quick google search) showed a red color. They do contain phycoerythrin (a badass chlorophyll helper molecule) which helps color the flamingos, but as far as I can tell (and according to one text, Evaorites) this isn’t what causes the red color of the lake. So my money is still on the archaea. But again, I’m not an expert so maybe they both contribute?

    To build on your point about flamingo coloring, the Lesser flamingos are more intense in color because they eat primarily cyanobacteria while the Greater flamingos consume mostly zooplankton and are less intense. So thank you, I learned a bunch more about microbes and flamingos!

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