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As Long as We Remember...

August 24, 2011

Studying Stromatolites in Deer Cave

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – One of the joys of living in Borneo is one gets to meet some of the top scientist from around the world. Being a biologist, I was eager to attend a talk about Deer Cave, the second largest cave in the world.


In a previous article on, I described the huge orifice. For those with a short memory, like me, Deer Cave is a huge cavern populated by a million bats hanging upside down, which spend their daylight hours defecating. At night they go out and party. The smell in the cave is knee collapsing.


The talk was about fresh water stromatolites. I didn’t have a clue what a stomatolite was, and I am wondering if I have even have spelled it right. Wait a minute…let me run my spell checker… hmmm spell checker never heard of them either.


Apparently these are shelf like projections on the wall of the cave that move upwards motorized by cynobacteria. The name reminds me of an agent in a murder mystery. Throw in some mucilaginous bacteria, which sounds gross, mix in some bat guano, add a dash of slime and there you have it. These critters move up the wall at a rate of about one meter every few thousand years, give or take a decade.


I was told this was the first time they had been described, an exciting discovery in the cynobacteria world. It was even in the Journal of Geomorphology, apparently a popular magazine with the electron microscope/slime/bat guano crowd. I cheekily asked if Brittany Spears or Leonardo Di Caprio was on the cover and they looked startled and asked me where they did their work. Hollywood, I replied. There are no caves in Hollywood that they knew about. Yes, but plenty of guano. They obviously didn’t get my attempt at humor.


One enterprising guy in the audience asked if there could be any economic value with these things. After some deep and considerable thought, they said no, but tourists would probably come to see them. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not going to fly to deepest, darkest Borneo to see them and I doubt that Disney size crowds would either.


My next question was how did you discover them, not believing that anyone paid these people to look around caves for something to study. Oh, we were looking around the caves for something to study, was the reply. I had to bite my tongue from asking who in their right mind would pay you, so I asked where they got funding for this amazing project. They replied that is was an international foundation that had something to do with caves. I didn’t press it.


I asked them what was next on their agenda and they said they were going to boogie to another cave to see what’s happening. They didn’t say it in those exact words, but you catch my drift.


In all seriousness, these are two dedicated researchers pursuing pure science and advancing the frontiers of knowledge in their respective fields. I salute them for spending days in a smelly cave wondering what these shelf-like structures were, hours with an electron microscope dissecting them and then sharing their knowledge with the rest of the world. But then again, they, like the bat guano they work in, are ripe for a humor column.


 . . . . . life is good. . . . .


For other article on Borneo, see Tom’s blog at


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