Mole Creek Caving Club
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The phototropic phytospeleothems of Moss Palace, Mole Creek.

an article by Michael Lichon

In Moss Palace, the presence of unusual speleothems further justifies action towards conservation of the Dogs Head Hill karst at Mole Creek, Tasmania. A "symbiotic" carbonate deposition and growth of the moss Distichophyllum microcarpum results in rare phototropic phytospeleothems, in the form of fan-shaped erratics. 

Moss Palace   

Moss Palace cave was discovered during a reconnaissance of Dogs Head Hill by MCCC founding members Phill Gregg, Deb Hunter and myself, March 1988. This cave was unaffected by human visitation, and does not correspond to any record in the inventory compiled by Kiernan, (1984). The rift-guided cave has 45 m of passage in two levels. The entrance leads to a narrow, high passage sloping down to a 2 m wide rift. The passage at the bottom of the rift returns underneath the upper level and pinches out a little farther. The overall cave length is about 25 m, total depth about 6 m. Cave walls are largely coated by white flowstone and delicate calcite speleothems, demanding extreme measures for the caver to avoid impact. Techniques include use of several changes of clean clothes and footwear, and strict placement of feet and hands, and refraining from unnecessary visitation. The upper level is lined with smooth white flowstone, and floored with delicate gours, some of which contain oolites. The main features of the rift are the flowstone wall with fan-shaped erratics (described later) on one side and white knobbly flowstone on the other. There is also some moonmilk on this wall. The lower passage has more conventional types of speleothems, though sometimes in unusual combinations. There is evidence towards the end of the lower passage that indicates at least four stages of flowstone and dripstone deposition and vadose solution. A further expedition produced a photographic record of the cave and its speleothems. In the context of the small size of the cave and its high sensitivity to visitation, a further expedition for mapping was unwarranted, however a sketch map was produced using preliminary survey and estimations. During a subsequent brief visit in October 1990, it was noted that an unidentified bird, possibly a Tawny Frogmouth or Owlet Nightjar, had taken up a nesting site on a high shelf in the upper level, and was depositing guano and debris onto the clean flowstone wall below.

The phototropic phytospeleothems    

Part of the twilight zone of Moss Palace features unique phototropic phytospeleothem decorations, ranging from 2 mm to 200 mm in length. They are found (in small form) near the entrance and (in more spectacular form) on a patch of wall 2-6 m below a 0.5 mē skylight at the far end of the cave (photo 1). The best developed phytospeleothems are 5 m below the skylight. These fan-shaped erratics, (see photos), grow outwards from wall surfaces, oriented with the face of the fan perpendicular to the source of the light. They mostly occur in overlapping clusters, (photo 4), with only the outermost edges being readily visible from the direction of the light. These edges consist of a fringe of living moss, Distichophyllum microcarpum, (species described in Scott, Stone & Rosser, 1976). The moss appears to be in the process of calcification, being increasingly advanced back from the edge of the growing fringe. The calcium carbonate deposit completely replaces the older, dead moss, and the speleothem becomes thickened towards the base by a coat of calcite material. During and following periods of wet weather, these speleothems are heavily dowsed by water; at other times they were observed to remain wet or moist. The decorations have not been inspected during serious drought conditions, though the presence of what appear to be dead (i.e. lacking a living green fringe) stubs among the active phytospeleothems suggests they are intolerant to deep soil drought.

Photo gallery of phototropic phytospeleothem decorations
(click on any image for full size view in a larger window)

Overview of decorated wall looking up towards skylight

Phytospeleothems viewed from above

Side view of oriented fan decoration clusters

Closer side view
Close-up views of individual fans

Side view of an active fan alongside "dead" stubs

View of fan underside

Top view of fans

Viewed end-on

Hill and Forti (1986), and Ford and Williams (1989) classify the forms of cave deposits, and put forward mechanisms to explain their formation. Growth of erratics include situations of crystal growth when evaporation rates exceed water seepage flows, thus preventing formation of water drops, and hence normal straw stalactites. The observed water flows would contraindicate this mechanism. Jennings (1985) used the term "phytokarst" to describe solution features on limestone caused by biological activity. This term should not be used to describe carbonate deposit features. Goede (1988) pointed to the possibility of biological mechanisms for the formation of moonmilk deposits. DeSaussure (1961) concluded that green algae was the cause of phototropic cave coral in Teopisca Cavern, Mexico. Cox et al (1989) concluded that cyanobacteria causes phototropism of "crayfish" stalagmites in Nettle Cave and Arch Cave at Jenolan, NSW. Dalby (1966) described carbonate accumulation on the mosses Eucladium verticillatum and Barbula tophacea, growing at inclined angles from the ceiling of disused coal mine level in the twilight zone at Dorset (UK) by the seaside. D. microcarpum has previously been observed on bare karst substrates; George Scott (pers. comm.) observed the species growing on limestone under 5 m of water at Ewens Ponds, SA, but no carbonate growth was noted in this situation. 

Andy Spate (pers. comm.) observed a number of poorly developed examples of phototropic phytospeleothems at Honeycomb Cave, Mole Creek. Subsequently, I observed copious growth of D. microcarpum at the entrance and twilight zone of Gillam Cave, Mole Creek. This was found to be devoid of any associated phytospeleothem growth.

Morphology of the Moss Palace speleothems indicates that their growth is controlled by the existence of the growing moss, hence the use of the term phytospeleothem. The orientation of the growth is directed by light, i.e., phototropic, and erratic with respect to gravity. The more specific term for these erratic speleothem decorations would thus be "phototropic phytoerratics". 

The mechanism of calcium carbonate deposition may be explained by a net photosynthetic removal of CO2 from the water supplying the moss, thus shifting the hydrogen carbonate equilibrium, resulting in carbonate deposition. There are likely to be two factors involved in this process; firstly, the photosynthesis of the moss removes CO2 from solution to sustain the plants; secondly, the moss merely provides a physical substrate of large surface area for degassing of CO2 into the cave atmosphere. It would be speculation at this stage to suggest which is the dominant factor. The subsequent thickening at the stems of the speleothems is regarded as being a conventional flowstone deposit.

Conservation significance    

The significance of the Dogs Head karst was noted earlier by Kiernan (1984); the hill is a rare and classic Hum, and there were already a number of known caves with speleological or archaeological significance. The value of the area was again highlighted by Hunter, in Cadman et al (1990), in the context of the discovery of Moss Palace and its phytospeleothems. There remain serious threats to the values of this National Estate-listed area, specifically from the mining operations of the nearby limeworks. Forestry, insensitive recreation and farming represent additional threats, Hunter (1992). 

It is understood that local mining interests regard Dogs Head Hill as a desirable deposit of high grade, readily accessible limestone in close proximity to the existing mill, and that it is looking to expand operations, Lichon (1992a). Unprotected from mining, there is evidence of rock sampling on Dogs Head Hill close to Moss Palace. 

There is now a temporary and partial respite from forestry by the delineation of a forestry Recommended Area of Protection (RAP) covering the area of the hill. This was justified primarily on the grounds of being an example area of dry sclerophyll forest, not for karst values, despite Forestry employing a geomorphologist to address such problems. It remains the case that forestry activities, especially fire, continue to adversely affect the catchment area of Dogs Head Hill, including to the south between the hill and Standard Tier. 

An ever-present threat to the phototropic phytospeleothems is the impact caused by (even careful) cavers, let alone blundering visitors. We ask that nobody enter the cave - I can give you a slide show on request.

Farming north and east of the hill pose a potential threat to the integrity of the Dogs Head karst, Lichon (


I thank Mr Paddy Dalton, Dr George Scott and Dr Heinar Streimann for their assistance with identifying moss samples.


S.Cadman, G.Dixon, S.Fearn, L.Goldsworthy, A.Hingston, D.Hunter, A.Kelly, and C.Spencer, 1990 The Great Western Tiers: the case for conservation. A Proposal for a Great Western Tiers National Park. Deloraine Environment Centre, Deloraine. 49pp.

G.Cox, J.M.James, K.E.A.Leggett, and R.A.L.Osborne, 1989 Cyanobacterially deposited speleothems: Subaerial stromatolites. Geomicrobiology J. 7:245-252. 

D.H.Dalby, 1966 The Growth of Plants under Reduced Light. Stud. Speleol. 1(4):193-203.

R.De Saussure, 1961 Phototropic Cave Coral. Cave Notes 3(4):25-28.

D.Ford. & P.Williams, 1989 Karst Geomorphology and Hydrology. Unwin Hyman, London. 601pp.

A.Goede, 1988 Moonmilk - Mineral, Animal or Vegetable? Tasmanian Cave & Karst Res. Group J. 3:9-17.

C.A.Hill & P.Forti, 1986 Cave Minerals of the World. Nat. Speleol. Soc., Huntsville.

D.L.Hunter, 1992 A brief history of cave conservation at Mole Creek and the development of the Great Western Tiers National Park proposal, Illuminations 1:9-14.

J.N.Jennings, 1985 Karst Geomorphology. Blackwell, Oxford. 293pp.

K.Kiernan, 1984 Land-use in Karst Areas - Forestry Operations and the Mole Creek Caves. Australian Heritage Commission Library, Canberra. 320pp. Microfiche.

M.J.Lichon, 1992 Recent history & issues surrounding the saving of Exit Cave, and future options. Illuminations 1:17-22.

M.J.Lichon, 1992 "Right to Farm", the latest new threat to the Mole Creek karst, Illuminations 1:15-16.

G.A.M.Scott, I.G.Stone, and C.Rosser, 1976 The Mosses of Southern Australia. Academic Press, London. 388-390.

A version of this paper was published in 1992 in Helictite 30 (1) 8-10.



please tread lightly on the karst!



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