The NSS Bulletin - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 50 Number 2: 47-53 - December 1988

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Scanning Electron Microscopy and Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis of Artificial and Natural Substrates from the Phantom Flowstone of Sulphur River in Parker Cave, Kentucky
Rick A. Olson and D. Bruce Thompson


In order to sample its biological and mineral constituents in a nondestructive manner, two mylar artificial substrates were placed on a flowstone mass in Sulphur River known as "The Phantom," in Parker Cave, Kentucky. The substrates were retrieved for study after 112 days and found to be encrusted with a layer of flowstone approximately 1 mm thick. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and energy dispersive x-ray analysis (EDX) showed that the flowstone consisted of mineral precipitate and bacteria. The lack of significant cation peaks in the EDX spectra indicated that sulfur in this flowstone was predominantly elemental rather than complexed as sulfates or sulfides. The presence of orthorhombic sulfur was later verified by x-ray diffraction. Possible sulfur-metabolizing bacteria were observed in association with the sulfur. In order to compare the artificial with natural substrates, two unattached gypsum needles were also collected. SEM and EDX showed that bacteria, sulfur crystals, and calcium phosphate were present on the surfaces of the needles. The Phantom Flowstone and downstream Sulphur River is a subterranean sulfuretum that is unique in the approximately 450 miles of mapped cave passage in the Mammoth Cave Region. Whether this sulfuretum is a natural phenomenon or a result of oil well pollution is an important question that remains to be answered.

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