Tamara Yesmin Toma

Researcher, Dismislab
Living creatures in Lake Natron do not turn to stone or mummify
This article is more than 2 months old

Living creatures in Lake Natron do not turn to stone or mummify

Tamara Yesmin Toma

Researcher, Dismislab

Claims have been circulated on Facebook (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) asserting that living creatures are turning into stones upon contact with the water of Lake Natron in Tanzania, located in East Africa. Similar information has been published at various times through the media in Bangladesh and India (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). However, upon verification, it is found that this information regarding Lake Natron is not accurate. Living creatures do not undergo a transformation into stones or mummies upon contact with the water of Lake Natron. Rather, the lake is home to various organisms, and their remains are preserved for an extended period due to the water’s alkalinity and saline nature.

Misleading claims about Lake Natron have been spreading on Facebook in various forms since 2013. Recently, a post shared in a group named “Bigyan Post: (Mahakash, Rasayan, Jibbigyan O Prajukti)” (Translated into: Science Posts: Space, Chemistry, Biology and Technology) received over 8,000 reactions and was shared more than 585 times. Similar claims have also been made in this group in a post from 2023.

Additionally, on social and mass media, there are pictures of pale, discolored animals at the edge of the lake, along with images depicting the petrification of animals and formations resembling mummies. According to the verification, these images are attributed to the artistic work of Nick Brandt. He intentionally placed deceased animals by the lake’s shore or on tree branches, attempting to give them a semblance of life.

Alkaline water lake with high pH levels

Generally, the pH level of freshwater is between 6 and 8. However, the pH level of Natron Lake water is around 10.5. This elevated pH level is attributed to sodium carbonate and minerals from the surrounding mountains. According to the fact-check report of Africa Check, the high rate of evaporation in Natron Lake contributes to the increasing density of salt in the water. Even there is no chance to reduce the salinity as water does not flow from this lake to the river or the sea.

High-salinity water in this region can be terrifying for animals not adapted to it naturally. However, the claim that various animals are dying due to the contact with the lake water has no truth. Instead, Natron Lake has its own ecosystem. It contains a thriving ecosystem of freshwater wetlands and salt marshes that support the animals depicted in Brandt’s photographs. Norton is surrounded by colonies of flamingos and other wetland birds; tilapia, and the algae upon which flamingos depend. Due to the presence of a specific type of bacteria thriving in the hostile environment, the water of Natron Lake appears blood-red.

So how did the animals die?

In 2013, Daily Star published a report titled “Lake that turns them into stones”. Channel I also featured a report online with the title “Lake Natron: Where Living Wildlife Becomes Mummies”. Various Indian media outlets, such as Sangbad Protidin, covered the story with headlines like “Living animals are turned into stone, Tanzania’s ‘deadly lake’ is still full of mystery” and Asia Net featured a report titled “Birds become stone when they get into this water, Natron Lake is shrouded in strange mystery”. However, there is no evidence to support the claim that animals turn into stones or mummies upon contact with the lake water in reality.

The images of grayish animals featured in various posts and reports were taken from the book “Across the Ravaged Land” by British photographer Nick Brandt, published in 2013. These images are part of Brandt’s trilogy focusing on the disappearing wildlife in East Africa. The photographs were captured between 2010 and 2012.

In an interview with NBC News, Brandt mentioned, “I unexpectedly found the creatures — all manner of birds and bats — washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania…I took these creatures as I found them on the shoreline, and then placed them in ‘living’ positions, bringing them back to ‘life’.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post, he added, “No one knows for certain exactly how [these animals] die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, causing them to crash into the lake”.

Brandt said, “The soda and salt causes the creatures to calcify, perfectly preserved, as they dry.”

David Harper, an ecologist at the University of Leicester, told NBC News, “If a body falls anywhere else it decomposes very quickly, but on the edge of the lake, it just gets encrusted in salt and stays forever”.

In other words, the claim that creatures turn into stones or mummies upon contact with the water of Natron Lake is false.

In 2022, the African Fact-Checking organization Africa Check also debunked the assertion that animals turn into stones in contact with the water of Natron Lake.