They look like dusty statues, but the photographs of animals — mostly birds — taken by photographer Nick Brandt were once vibrant, living creatures.
Their fatal mistake? Taking a dip in Lake Natron.
Lake Natron, located in Tanzania, on the Kenyan border has a concentration of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, in addition to magnesite deposits, that result in this deadly phenomenon. According to New Scientist, these compounds are present in the lake due to a nearby volcano dumping ash.
“I unexpectedly found the creatures — all manner of birds and bats — washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania. No one knows for certain exactly how they die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, and like birds crashing into plate glass windows, they crash into the lake,” Brandt wrote in his photo book “Across the Ravaged Land,” according to Discover Magazine.
The outlet New Scientist clarifies that the statuesque animals were positioned for the photographs by Brandt, but that doesn’t make the state of the animals any less incredible:
“The water has an extremely high soda and salt content, so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds. The soda and salt causes the creatures to calcify, perfectly preserved, as they dry,” he continued.
Not all animals that become submerged in the water die. According to New Scientist, extremophile fish like alkaline tilapia have adapted to live in the harsh — often hot — water. The pH lake can reach an alkalinity between 9 and 10.5 — for reference a neutral pH of water is 7.
Take a look at this video of a group of tilapia surviving in this microecosystem:
The compounds in the lake form salt islands, which New Scientist reported some lesser flamingos decide to nest upon. This though is a dangerous location as the calcified birds show.
Here’s more of an explanation from GeekOSystem about the animals’ calcified state:
The chemical process to which they were subjected is much closer to Egyptian mummifcation than anything else, and although the bodies appear chalky and stone-like in appearance, but they are not completely immovable. After all, if that were the case then Brandt would not have been able to reposition his birds into such surreal and breathtaking poses.
This story has been updated to include more information.