Pyrite oxidation in the underground mining environment of Iron Mountain, California, has created the most acidic pH values ever reported in aquatic systems. Sulfate values as high as 120 000 mg l-1 and iron as high as 27 600 mg l-1 have been measured in the mine water, which also carries abundant other dissolved metals including Al, Zn, Cu, Cd, Mn, Sb and Pb. Extreme acidity and high metal concentrations apparently do not preclude the presence of an underground acidophilic food web, which has developed with bacterial biomass at the base and heliozoans as top predators. Slimes, oil-like films, flexible and inflexible stalactites, sediments, water and precipitates were found to have distinctive communities. A variety of filamentous and non-filamentous bacteria grew in slimes in water having pH values < 1.0. Fungal hyphae colonize stalactites dripping pH 1.0 water; they may help to form these drip structures. Motile hypotrichous ciliates and bdelloid rotifers are particularly abundant in slimes having a pH of 1.5. Holdfasts of the iron bacterium Leptothrix discophora attach to biofilms covering pools of standing water having a pH of 2.5 in the mine. The mine is not a closed environment - people, forced air flow and massive flushing during high intensity rainfall provide intermittent contact between the surface and underground habitats, so the mine ecosystem probably is not a restricted one.
Additional publication details
Ecogeochemistry of the subsurface food web at pH 0-2.5 in Iron Mountain, California, U.S.A.