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Bacteria, fungi and biokarst in Lechuguilla Cave, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico


Lechuguilla Cave is a deep, extensive, gypsumand sulfur-bearing hypogenic cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, most of which (>90%) lies more than 300 m beneath the entrance. Located in the arid Guadalupe Mountains, Lechuguilla's remarkable state of preservation is partially due to the locally continuous Yates Formation siltstone that has effectively diverted most vadose water away from the cave. Allocthonous organic input to the cave is therefore very limited, but bacterial and fungal colonization is relatively extensive: (1)Aspergillus sp. fungi and unidentified bacteria are associated with iron-, manganese-, and sulfur-rich encrustations on calcitic folia near the suspected water table 466 m below the entrance; (2) 92 species of fungi in 19 genera have been identified throughout the cave in oligotrophic (nutrient-poor) “soils” and pools; (3) cave-air condensate contains unidentified microbes; (4) indigenous chemoheterotrophicSeliberius andCaulobacter bacteria are known from remote pool sites; and (5) at least four genera of heterotrophic bacteria with population densities near 5×105 colony-forming units (CFU) per gram are present in ceiling-bound deposits of supposedly abiogenic condensation-corrosion residues. Various lines of evidence suggest that autotrophic bacteria are present in the ceiling-bound residues and could act as primary producers in a unique subterranean microbial food chain. The suspected autotrophic bacteria are probably chemolithoautotrophic (CLA), utilizing trace iron, manganese, or sulfur in the limestone and dolomitic bedrock to mechanically (and possibly biochemically) erode the substrate to produce residual floor deposits. Because other major sources of organic matter have not been detected, we suggest that these CLA bacteria are providing requisite organic matter to the known heterotrophic bacteria and fungi in the residues. The cavewide bacterial and fungal distribution, the large volumes of corrosion residues, and the presence of ancient bacterial filaments in unusual calcite speleothems (biothems) attest to the apparent longevity of microbial occupation in this cave.

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Correspondence to K. I. Cunningham.

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Cunningham, K.I., Northup, D.E., Pollastro, R.M. et al. Bacteria, fungi and biokarst in Lechuguilla Cave, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. Geo 25, 2–8 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01061824

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Key words

  • Lechuguilla Cave
  • Biokarst
  • Chemolithotrophy
  • Corrosion residues
  • Biothems