Culturable microbial diversity and the impact of tourism in Kartchner Caverns, Arizona

Luisa A. Ikner, Rickard S. Toomey, Ginger Nolan, Julia W. Neilson, Barry M. Pryor, Raina M. Maier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

101 Scopus citations


Kartchner Caverns in Benson, AZ, was opened for tourism in 1999 after a careful development protocol that was designed to maintain predevelopment conditions. As a part of an ongoing effort to determine the impact of humans on this limestone cave, samples were collected from cave rock surfaces along the cave trail traveled daily by tour groups (200,000 visitors year-1) and compared to samples taken from areas designated as having medium (30-40 visitors year-1) and low (2-3 visitors year-1) levels of human exposure. Samples were also taken from fiberglass moldings installed during cave development. Culturable bacteria were recovered from these samples and 90 unique isolates were identified by using 16S rRNA polymerase chain reaction and sequencing. Diversity generally decreased as human impact increased leading to the isolation of 32, 27, and 22 strains from the low, medium, and high impact areas, respectively. The degree of human impact was also reflected in the phylogeny of the isolates recovered. Although most isolates fell into one of three phyla: Actinobacteria, Firmicutes, or Proteobacteria, the Proteobacteria were most abundant along the cave trail (77% of the isolates), while Firmicutes predominated in the low (66%) and medium (52%) impact areas. Although the abundance of Proteobacteria along the cave trail seems to include microbes of environmental rather than of anthropogenic origin, it is likely that their presence is a consequence of increased organic matter availability due to lint and other organics brought in by cave visitors. Monitoring of the cave is still in progress to determine whether these bacterial community changes may impact the future development of cave formations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-42
Number of pages13
JournalMicrobial ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Soil Science


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