- Many features of burnt guano cannot easily be distinguished from non-burnt guano
- Rapid dehydration from burning causes morphological change to crystals (cracking, striations)
- Many so-called “high temperature” minerals are not diagnostic of fire, other than graphite.
- Most “high temperature” minerals can also be produced at low temperatures
- Spontaneous combustion of guano (without human involvement) is extremely unlikely
Here we addressed the question of whether burning of guano produces a characteristic suite of morphological changes and/or unique mineralogical products. The changes observed in our experimental burning of guano (both fresh and decayed) included colour change (blackening), grain size and morphological change (grain size generally reduced, morphology rendered generally less distinct), alteration of minerals by dehydration (e.g., gypsum to anhydrite, brushite to whitlockite), and production of new minerals or compounds (e.g., augelite, bayerite, giniite, graphite, oldhamite, strontium apatite, tridymite). The key morphological feature we found that may be diagnostic of burning was severe damage to crystals from rapid dehydration (cracks and striations, leading to eventual fragmentation). The key mineralogical feature we found was production of graphite. The high temperature exotic minerals that were produced (giniite, augelite, tridymite, oldhamite) were all found not to be high temperature obligate. Evidence gleaned from the literature suggests that a great number of the minerals associated with high temperatures can also be synthesized in low temperature settings such as weathering or microbial action (exemplified in the extremely complex biology and biochemistry of decaying guano). While the presence of any one of these minerals is not diagnostic of fire, it could be argued that the suite taken as a whole is moderately strong evidence for burning. In future studies, the chemistry of carbon aromaticity may prove to be the best diagnostic test for pyrolysis. A survey of the conditions under which documented spontaneous ignition occurs leads us to conclude that spontaneous ignition of guano inside a cave is an extremely unlikely event, and any suggestion/assertion to this effect should be rigorously supported.
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Lundberg, J., McFarlane, D.A., 2021. The impact of burning on the structure and mineral composition of bat guano. International Journal of Speleology, 50(2), 189-202. https://doi.org/10.5038/1827-806X.50.2.2387