The Salt Demon’s Legacy

Once in a way, nature and chance converse briefly to produce a wonder. About 60,000 years ago, the deccan plateau had a visitor from outer space. A decently sized rock, seduced by the earth’s gravity and not completely eaten away by the angry friction from our planet’s atmosphere, came crashing down in the Buldana district of Maharashtra. Igneous rock met igneous rock and in the 6 megaton meeting was created a crater, 1.8 kilometers long and 150 meters deep.The soil of the region was rich in salts and so when it rained, the waters from the rains and the three perennial springs, would collect the salts from around the region and deposit them at the bottom of the lake. When the sun evaporated the water, the salts remained and over time 60,000 years long, the small permanent lake at the centre of the crater grew very very salty and very very hard.

The Yadavas who lived there in the 13th century noticed this hole in their backyard and the small conical hill thirty kilometers away connecting the two in a pretty little story that they chiselled on the walls of the temple nearby. The demon Lavanasur had been terrorising earth and heeding the prayers of the people he loved, Vishnu sent his avatar down below to take care of the problem. He found the demon’s hideout in a cave and kicked away the conical rock that kept him hidden. That created the hole and when Lavanasur – the salt demon’s blood was spilt, it turned the waters salty and made the Lake Lonar.

The salt demon’s legacy was a lake that should have been unfit for life to exist. The centre of the lake is ten times more salty than what life can take and so extremely alkalic ( It has a Ph level of 11.6. Seven is normal and 12 is the limit of measure) that nothing ought to grow. But the demon had not accounted for life’s hunger to live.

Extremophiles are micro-organisms that can live where they shouldn’t. Bacteria that live and thrive in the scalding, poisonous mouths of active volcanoes under sea or those that eke it out in the extremes of salt and alkali in the middle of the lake Lonar. What would be the evolutionary push to evolve life in poisonous and extreme environments? Well, consider that ancestral bacteria were among the very first forms of life on earth. And being the first they came into being at a time when the earth was uninhabitable.

No oxygen, no atmosphere and poisonous vapours all around. Therefore it is believed that extremophile bacteria that we today find ( especially the one’s that do not depend on oxygen for life like the sulphur eating kinds) tucked away in small niches, are those original primitive bacteria that made life possible on earth. How poetic that Lavanasur’s barren legacy was conquered by earth’s oldest inhabitant. The little micro-organisms created a chain reaction of life begetting life, much like in the old days, this time, at the centre of Lonar lake and the demon’s legacy turned from a metaphor for lifeless to a testament to life.

Within a world circumscribed by a 1.8 kilometer boundary, nature has created life so rich and varied that starting from the rim and gradually working towards the centre of the lake, one comes across as many as 10 different ecosystems and cycles of life that support and play off of each other. “The crater is a natural exhibition curating life. Water birds like flamingos and the Brahmni duck come here from as far away as Siberia. They feed on Spirulina which is found in the crater in abundance and is one of the highest sources of single cell protein occuring in nature. I have also counted four different species of spiders. ” says P K Ghanekar, former HOD, Botany department, Garware College, Pune.

The magic of Lonar lake however unfolds at the very centre of the lake. Yogesh Shouche, microbiologist, National Centre for Cell Science, Pune, says “From the microbiolgists point of view, the hyper saline and the hyper alkaline water of the crater lake is a very unique ecological environment to study particular kinds of microbial communities. This place has two extreme conditions and the different bacteria that live there are consequently very unique.” The centre of the lake is a potpourri of never before seen bacteria – like the rod shaped one which are sensitive to magnetism because of iron deposits inside them and so always align along the earth’s magnetic poles.

Or extremely useful ones like Yogesh discovered a couple of years back – bacteria that eat methane. Think greenhouse gases, climate change and sense the immense potential that this little bacteria holds. “We’ve even found dna based indirect evidence of bacteria that might be resistant to radiation. The methane eating bacteria that we found is the first such that can survive in a high alkaline environment. From a scientific point of view, it is of immense significant interest to answer what is so unique about the metabolism of these extremophiles that can help them survive and thrive in these kind of hostile environments.” Lonar Lake’s importance to human knowledge is in telling us both what is possible in nature and how that possibility is achieved. We have just begun to plumb this lake’s depth in knowledge potential.

But before lake lonar can give up its enriching secrets, it has to be saved. From the usual suspects. Us. According to Ghanekar, there is already a significant amount of deforestation that is threatening the crater slopes as the local villagers cut away the trees undaunted thus meddling with crater’s ability to retain and arrest water. Ghanekar says, “There is agricultural activity that takes place inside the crater at the boundaries of the lake and that is a significant threat because you can imagine what fertilizers, insecticides and agro chemicals can do to a fragile and supersensitive ecosystem.

Lonar towns sewage is now finding its way into the lake as is the detergents that are used to wash clothes in one of the streams. Detergents have high amounts of phosphate and this causes a swarming effect of microbes around detergents which is hazardous to the indigenous microbes of interest in the lake.” In an environment where the curious composition of the water is what has caused this ecological wonder, it is paramount that the integrity of the water is preserved at all cost and allowed to remain as is, untouched by anything that compromises it.

This integrity is currently under threat. Even the high alkaline and salt levels at the centre of the lake that allows those extremophiles to thrive is on the decrease. Already the PH level has fallen below 11, most likely because of a percolation tank installed close to the crater which is injecting fresh water into the lake. Extremophiles have been so designed by nature that they cannot survive outside the peculiar environments they have been evolved to survive. The reasons that make the ecological niches of Lonar Lake possible are also the reasons that make it extremely fragile and vulnerable.

So what can we do? Declaring Lonar Lake a world heritage site would be a good beginning. Its the kind of government intervention that would provide the framework to bring in steps to protect an ecological wonder such as this. Its important to remember that the cause of science, like music and art, is not provincial but universal. The building of knowledge is what we do not as nations but as a species. Lonar lake is an inestimable living archive that properly therefore belongs to the world. It is up to us in India to protect it for the human race.


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