Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) Lake Natron, Tanzania


Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor) Lake Natron, Tanzania

Photo by: Anup Shah

Anup Shah

This Tanzanian Lake is a Vision in Red- And You Can Visit

By: Ashley Gabriel

This picturesque lake in northern Tanzania is harsh enough to burn anything that touches it. Unless, of course, you're one of the select few species adapted to thrive in it.

February 05, 2020

Don't Be Salty

Lake Natron is a salt lake that stretches for 35 miles (56 kilometers) over the Arusha Region of northern Tanzania. Characterized by algae-rich, blood-red water and a barren landscape devoid of human development, Lake Natron is known for some less-than-attractive features. Its chemical composition, however, tops the list.

While the waters of most freshwater lakes eventually drain into the ocean, salt lakes are different. Known as endorheic lakes, these bodies of water allow precipitation to collect within them but won't allow it to flow out. That leads the water to build up high concentrations of salt and other minerals. Two well-known examples are Utah's Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea. While Lake Natron does, in fact, fall into the same category, one specific difference sets it apart — extremely alkaline waters. With pH levels measured as high as 10.5 — almost as high as ammonia — you begin to understand why very few life forms survive in this harsh environment. But the Dead Sea doesn't have a pH anywhere near that high. How did Lake Natron get so alkaline? A nearby geological feature is largely responsible.

Up above Lake Natron, in the Rift Valley, sits the Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano that spews alkali-rich natrocarbonatites. Via runoff from rainwater and nearby hot springs, these dark lava flows release natron — a mix of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate once used in Egyptian mummification — that makes its way into Lake Natron below, resulting in a rising pH and some pretty fascinating biodiversity.

Some Like It Hot

Patterns in Lake Natron.


Patterns in Lake Natron.

Photo by: Michael Poliza

Michael Poliza

Despite its ominous chemical composition, Lake Natron is actually a thriving ecosystem for a select few species adapted to its caustic waters. Extreme water temperatures of up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit promote blooms of haloarchaea, salt-loving microorganisms that give the lake its red appearance. Natron is home to only one species of fish: Alcolapia latilabris, a 2-inch (6-centimeter) cichlid that's endemic to those waters. Perhaps most memorable, however, is one unexpected and visually striking species that flocks to Lake Natron's water yearly: the lesser flamingo.

Smaller and lighter in color than their "greater" counterparts, the lesser flamingo is categorized as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Yet three-quarters of the world's lesser flamingos live in this region of Africa. When the water level and food availability is high, thousands of the spectacular birds use Lake Natron as their nesting grounds. The birds congregate on inaccessible islands within the shallow salt lake, forcing researchers to study them from aircraft above. It's just this inaccessibility that protects the flamingos' nests from predators like hyenas, making Lake Natron the perfect habitat for the birds.

This chemically unique ecosystem is surely one of a kind. But don't let the flourishing microorganisms and crafty flamingos fool you — Lake Natron is still one body of water you do not want to fall into.

This article first appeared on

Next Up

Meet the Ancient Egyptian Gods Who Empower DC Comic's Black Adam

Get to know the six ancient Egyptian gods behind the latest DC Comics film Black Adam, starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, in theaters starting October 21.

What's Inside the Secret Chambers in the Pyramids of Giza

A powerful new cosmic ray scan of the Great Pyramid of Giza could finally reveal what’s inside two voids in the structure that have baffled scientists for years.

A Majestic City Carved into Rock, Thousands of Years Ago

Carved into soft stone cliffs, the ancient sandstone city of Petra was built in the 3rd century BC by the Nabataeans. These people were a nomadic Arab tribe–Bedouins–who roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds.

A Canadian Teen Once Discovered an Ancient Temple – Using Google Maps

Most teenagers while away hours playing video games, scrolling TikTok, or texting friends. Not William Gadoury, a 14-year-old from Saint-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec. Back in 2016, Gadoury was holed up in his bedroom, plotting ancient Mayan constellations against modern satellite images and coordinates.

Mt. Shasta, California’s Mysterious Volcano, is an Enigma Waiting to be Explored

At the northernmost tip of California lies the southern end of the dramatic Cascade mountain range. And the crowning glory of the range, which ripples down through British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, before it comes to a stunning crescendo at Mount Shasta.

A Spanish Sunken Galleon Has a $17B Bounty Onboard - and Now You Can See It

Way back in 1708, when the War of Spanish Succession was waging across Europe and Latin America to decide who should be the next King of Spain, three Spanish galleons set sail from Panama. They were loaded to the brim with gold, silver, emeralds, and other jewels that had been extracted from the mines of Bolivia – and were vital in financing Spain’s costly war against its enemies.

The Romantic, Heartbreaking Love Story Behind the Taj Mahal

Ivory white columns rise from the earth, framing the central masterpiece: an intricately carved marble domed structure stood on a square plinth, resplendent with arched doorways, and topped by a bronze moon that reaches for the sky.

4 Wonders of the Philippines

The Philippines is an island country in Southeast Asia, consisting of over 7,000 islands and islets. From rolling chocolate hills to caves and beaches for exploration, the Philippines has many places to explore and learn about!

In this Mars-Like Landscape, You Can See Both Hemispheres At Once

There’s a rarely-visited, dusty corner of the world where something magical happens. The place, which looks like Mars with its red rock landscape, is the Tatacoa Desert, in Colombia.

The Lost World of Socotra Archipelago

If aliens ever visit Planet Earth, Yemen’s “Dragon’s Blood Island” is probably where they would make their first contact.