Medusa, The Lake That Turns Flesh Into Stone
In a remote part of northern Tanzania in Africa there is a mysterious lake. The water is so caustic that it can burn the skin and eyes of unprepared creatures. Its shores are littered with the corpses of birds who perished by crashing into the lake. When the birds wash up onto the shore, their lifeless bodies appear to have been turned to stone. Welcome to Lake Natron.
What is the Nature of the Lake?
Lake Natron is a salt lake, meaning that it has no outlet for the water to exit the lake other than evaporation. It also has extremely high alkalinity. The nature of the lake comes from a chemical called natron which is a mixture of sodium carbonate and baking soda. The substance enters the lake through material eroding from the surrounding hills. The natron content in the lake has given it a pH level of about 10.5 which is comparable to that of ammonia. The alkalinity of the lake is what gives the body of water its unusual properties. It can very easily chemically burn animals not adapted to the sodium carbonate-rich conditions. The waters can also reach temperatures as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lake Natron – Panorama - Aerial view - Tanzania. ( Uryadnikov Sergey / Adobe)
Despite this hostile environment, the lake is not lifeless. It appears to contain a stable ecosystem consisting of a population of flamingos, at least one species of fish, and algae. These organisms may be evolutionary descendants of animals who lived on the lake before its current chemical environment arose. They may represent the only survivors who were able to successfully adapt as the lake acquired its uniquely hostile characteristics.
The southern half of Lake Natron (top). Fault scarps and the Gelai Volcano can also be seen. Numerous near-white salt-crust "rafts" pepper the shallowest parts of the lake (inset – bottom). (NASA / Public Domain )
A Bird Grave Yard
The shores of this lake are covered with thousands of intact petrified bird corpses that have washed ashore. The birds appear to have been preserved almost perfectly, feathers and all. They are so life-like that a photographer who explored the lake in 2011, Nick Brandt, started putting the birds in life-like poses and taking pictures of them.
What is the Cause of Petrification?
It is not entirely clear how the birds die. One theory that has been suggested by Brandt is that as the birds fly over the mirror-like surface of the chemically saturated lake, they become confused and think they are flying over empty space. This could lead them to accidentally crash into the lake. This is similar to the reason that birds tend to fly into glass doors and car windows.
The birds also do not petrify instantly on contact with the water. This is made clear by the population of flamingos, let alone the fish, that live in contact with the lake without being petrified. The petrification does however appear to happen very quickly.
Petrified salty remains of plants and animals. ( SaraPaola / Adobe)
What Are the Environmental Concerns?
Lake Natron is remarkably interesting to scientists because organisms do thrive in this extremely hostile environment. There are, however, concerns about the lake’s preservation. Currently there is no legislation to protect the lake and its unique ecology. There are also proposals to build a hydroelectric powerplant on the main source river for the lake. This could impact the survival of the local flamingo population.
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Skull of wildebeest in mud on shallow water. In the background is a volcano Langai. Lake Natron. Tanzania. ( Uryadnikov Sergey / Adobe)
Implications for Petrification in Mythology
Lake Natron is an eerie place because it is a lake where animals appear to turn to stone. Is it possible that places like Lake Natron could be part of the basis for petrification legends around the world?
In many cultures, there are legends of people and animals being turned to stone, often from contact with an accursed thing or as a form of punishment. A famous Greek example is Medusa, a creature whose appearance was so hideous that all who looked upon her turned to stone. In a later medieval legend, it is said that Saint Hilda of Whitby was empowered by God to turn a horde of snakes threatening her to stone. They coiled up and their heads fell off. It is said that the miraculously petrified corpses of the snakes can still be found on the shores of Whitby. A nearby monastery was also built in honor of the legendary event.
Stone Carved Panel of the Head of Medusa. ( Shelli Jensen / Adobe)
What is interesting about this story is that the stones Whitby locals believed for centuries to be the corpses of the snakes are, in reality, ammonite fossils. Ammonites were shelled organisms that lived in Cretaceous oceans over 66 million years ago. The legend appears to have been at least partially inspired by ancient people discovering an ammonite fossil and not knowing how to identify it. If it was well preserved enough so that it still resembled an actual animal, belief that it had been a living creature unfortunate enough to be magically petrified would be a logical guess to someone with a pre-scientific worldview. This possibility is reinforced by the fact that other ammonite rich beaches, besides Whitby, such as those in Somerset, England, also have their own versions of the legend where snakes are turned to stone.
If legends of animals and people being turned to stone can be inspired by the discovery of fossils, it does not seem unlikely that similar legends could also arise from ancient travelers encountering alkaline bodies of water that produce petrified corpses. In discovering a graveyard that turns birds to and other animals to stone, we may have also stumbled upon the real lair of Medusa.
Landscape near Lake Natro. (Richard Mortel / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Top Image: Flamingos at Lake Natron. Source: Richard Mortel / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Caleb Strom
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