The role of microorganisms in the formation of calcitic moonmilk deposits and speleothems in Altamira Cave


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February 2012


Bacteria are able to induce carbonate precipitation although the participation of microbial or chemical processes in speleothem formation remains a matter of debate. In this study, the origin of carbonate depositions such as moonmilk, an unconsolidated microcrystalline formation with high water content, and the consolidation of carbonate precipitates into hard speleothems were analyzed. The utilized methods included measurements of the composition of stable isotopes in these precipitates, fluorimetric determinations of RNA/DNA ratios and respirometric estimations in Altamira Cave. Results from isotope composition showed increases of the δ18O and δ13C ratios from moonmilk in the very first stages of formation toward large speleothems. Estimates of RNA/DNA ratios suggested an inactivation of microorganisms from incipient moonmilk toward consolidated deposits of calcium carbonate. Respiratory activity of microorganisms also showed a significant decrease in samples with accumulated calcite. These results suggest that bacterial activity induces the conditions required for calcium carbonate precipitation, initiating the first stages of deposition. Progressive accumulation of carbonate leads towards a less favorable environment for the development of bacteria. On consolidated speleothems, the importance of bacteria in carbonate deposition decreases and chemical processes gain importance in the deposition of carbonates.


Moonmilk, Cave, Bacterial Communities, Bacterial Activity, Ph, Carbonate Precipitation

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Geomorphology, Vol. 139-140 (2012-02-01).