This article is about the thick deposits of dust often seen just inside cave entrances and discusses deliquescent mineral deposits in the entrances of Eastern Australian caves.
|Sources of Dust|
|Tourist Do's and Don'ts|
The earliest accounts of cave exploration in NSW record a large quantity of dust in dry cave entrances. In the 1800's people have written saying that they sank "up to their knees" in dust. With the passage of people, this dust usually becomes compacted and loses its soft qualities however in some tourist caves such as at Jenolan and Wombeyan (NSW) this dust can still be seen off the sides of the track and in little-visited areas. I have never encountered knee-deep dust, though.
Sources of dust
The origin of dust in dry cave entrances is usually ascribed to the wind (ie aeolian source) however there are other sources, depending on what the dust is made of.
- Aeolian source: In this case, the dust is made of topsoil blown into the cave during dust storms. Expected materials include silica, organic matter such as grass and leaves, pollen and clays.
- Bird droppings: Most notably owls, swallows and swiftlets in Eastern Australian caves. Sooty owls (Tito tenebricosa) have favourite sites which are used by successive generations however the "dust" in this case is specific to only one place in the cave and does not have the soft qualities of other sources of dust. The droppings of owls are the voided remains of small animals and are a good indicator of the type of prey available to the owls over a long climatic period.
- Bat guano: This is often a constituent of cave entrance dust. Some caves have large deposits of bat guano which have been mined in the past. Guano heaps, however, do not usually produce the fine dry dust that one sinks into in cave entrances however some of the constituents of bat guano may play a role in its formation.
- Wallaby droppings, Possum's nests, Rat's nests:
The droppings and accumulations of Rats are discussed in
Moore and Sullivan as a good source of nitrogenous material
In Tasmania, I have encountered a Possum's nest in a cave, being an accumulation of plant material and (from the smell) Possum droppings and urine. In NSW there is a fairly rare wallaby, the Brush-Tailed Rock Wallaby, (Petrogale penicillata) which used to be common around the tourist caves (Jenolan and Wombeyan). I have encountered scats from these animals fairly deep in Wineglass Cave (Wombeyan) and presumed that they sheltered in the cave during cold or snowy weather.
For more information on the wallaby, or other animals, search on http://www.google.com or look in the species lists on http://www.npws.nsw.gov.au/wildlife.
There are deep deposits of dry wallaby scats in the Grand Arch at Jenolan Caves. Associated with these deposits is nitre, presumably from the wallaby scats. This tends to be precipitated underneath the boulders on which the droppings accumulate. The animals usually pick a dry spot to rest, so there is little chance that the droppings will be washed away.
- Crystal wedging of ceiling deposits: This can occur in very dry conditions if salt (NaCl) is present or if gypsum is present. Generally caves in Eastern Australia are too moist for salt to precipitate however gypsum wedging may be a factor in the caves at Bungonia (NSW). This type of crystal wedging is not restricted to cave entrances though.
- Crystal heaving of mud substrate:
On a several occasions I have visited the Fig Tree Cave at Wombeyan
when the floor of the entrance chamber was festooned with needles,
blobs, ropes and balls of a white fluffy material.
The material has not been sampled or analysed however its
deliquescence would infer that it is a nitrate (eg nitre).
It usually occurs during the colder months when the air is
Often there are little particles of soil and dust adhering to
the surface of the material, inferring that is is extruded
from the substrate.
The white fluffy material disappears in humid weather, leaving
the dust behind very soft like a dark grey talcum powder.
If this is nitre, then presumably it is from the scats of wallabies. Nitre has been reported from Jenolan (see Hill and Forti, referencing Mingaye).
I am proposing that this is the main origin of soft dust in cave entrances in Eastern Australia.
Tourist Do's and Don'ts
- Do keep a record of where you see deep dust, when you see it, what time of the year and whether there are any fluffy deposits associated with it.
- Do look in the dust for footprints of small animals such as beetles, lizards, birds, mice and spiders. This gives an idea as to what kinds of animals live in the vicinity.
- Don't go round poking the fluffy material or stomping on the dust. Poking the fluffy material spoils its appearance for others and there may be histoplasma spores in the dust which can cause illness if inhaled.
- Note to tourist cave owners / operators: Be careful during cave cleaning operations. It is probably not a good idea to hose down areas of deep dust as it may wash out the minerals responsible for its formation.
The origins of deep dust in dry cave entrances is an interesting problem.
It seems to be
more prevalent in caves with multiple entrances, although it is also present
in large caves with single entrances.
Lint is certainly a modern constituent of dust (N. Michie, pers. comm.) in tourist caves.
I wonder about the depth of dust as reported by the earlier accounts. I do not question the depth, rather I wonder why we do not find dust to that sort of depth these days. If the dust was due to the extrusive effect of nitre on cave sediments, then one can guess that there is no longer the quantity of nitre present in the cave entrances. One possibility is that the nitre was being formed from wallaby scats. These days, wallabies no longer inhabit the caves so possibly the source of dust is not being replenished.
I have looked at some very small holes in limestone, too small to call a cave, in which there was no dust, just turned-over soil as might be expected from (say) earthworms or insects.
I propose that in order for cave entrances to have dust, there needs to be:
- An animal to inhabit the cave
- A source of nitrogen compounds eg animal droppings
- Dry mud or soil to act as a substrate (source of dust)
- Bacterial decomposition of nitrogen compounds to form nitre
- A dry location to avoid washing away the materials
- A period of dryness to allow nitre to precipitate
- A period of higher humidity to allow nitre to deliquesce
In the case of Fig Tree Cave at Wombeyan (NSW), to test the hypothesis a number of measurements would need to be made:
- What is the fluffy material made of? Is it nitre?
- Is there any correlation between humidity and appearance of the fluffy deposit?
- Does the same fluffy material occur elsewhere?
- Does the soft dry dust occur elsewhere?
- What is the dust made of? Is it organic, silica, gypsum or clay?
- What is the temperature and humidity where the dust occurs?
- What is the air flow rate and direction?
- How long does it take for an impression in the dust to be filled in?
Personal comments with Armstrong Osborne in 2000 and with Neville Michie in
Recently, the Australian Museum has analysed Niter and Sylvite from the dust in the Devils Coach House and the Grand Arch, Jenolan Caves. This was presented at the International Union of Speleology congress in Brazil in 2001 and will be in the Proceedings (in prep).
Hill & Forti
Speleology by George Moore and Nicholas Sullivan.
Cosmetic update, January 2006. Content updated 28th January 2002.