Mono Lake

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Mono Lake
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

Lowered Levels

Mono Lake, in eastern California, is a strange, salty place. The lake teems with trillions of brine shrimp but no fish swim in the salt water. Alkali flies swarm the shores and even enter the water, encased in air bubbles, to lay their eggs. But Mono Lake and its bizarre animals are more than oddities: They form a crucial link in one of the world's most productive food chains. Millions of birds feast on Mono Lake's flies and shrimp during their long annual migrations along the Pacific coast.

The Fly Eaters

Alkali flies (Ephydra hians) are an excellent source of protein for hungry birds--and people. As late as the mid-1800s, a group of Paiute Native Americans lived at Mono Lake and regularly collected and ate alkali fly pupae. They called themselves the Kutzadika'a, which roughly translates as "fly eaters.

American avocet (Recurvirostra americana)
© Shari L. Morris / AGE Fotostock

Saltier Than the Sea

Mono Lake is saltier than the sea. Creeks wash minerals, including salts, from the surrounding mountains into the lake, which has no outlet. As lake water evaporates, the salts are left behind.

American Avocet

American avocets (Recurvirostra americana), eared grebes (Podiceps nigricollis), red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) and Wilson's phalaropes (Phalaropus tricolor) are among the more than 80 species of migratory birds that stop in the millions to rest and feed on flies and brine shrimp (Artemia monica) at Mono Lake in the late summer before continuing on to wintering areas further south.

Negit Island
Long Valley Observatory/USGS

Nesting on Negit

In late spring every year, about 50,000 California gulls come to breed at Mono Lake, primarily on Negit Island. But they're not alone. Snowy plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus) nest on Mono Lake's eastern shore and yellow warblers (Dendroica petechia), among dozens of other bird species, make their homes along creeks feeding into the lake.