The human impact upon the subterranean microbiomes is not only a peril to the cave environment but might also affect future visitors. We focused on the changes that humans induced on the surfaces they came in direct or indirect contact with inside two intensely visited Romanian show caves, by means of commercially available microbial rapid test kits and molecular identification.
Overall culturable bacteria abundance in the caves maintained high levels year-round while Enterobacteriaceae, coliform bacteria and Escherichiacoli levels peaked during the touristic season, reaching levels that could pose a threat to the health of the visitors. Culturable fungi abundance usually peaked in the spring, remained at a high level in the summer and started to slowly decrease towards the winter months. Differences were observed between the direct and indirect exposed surfaces, as the later had lower overall levels of bacteria and fungi, with increased Enterobacteriaceae loads. Most of the taxa identified are known biodeteriorants of subterranean surfaces and were previously associated with human altered caves. A Dothideomycete sp. previously unknown to the cave environments was detected.
This was the first study to analyse the dynamics of the microbial communities of delicate subterranean surfaces in show caves through the use of commercially available test kits. We revealed that exposed surfaces in show caves, in direct or indirect contact with tourists, are host to high concentrations of cultivable microbes. The touristic activity was shown to influence the abundance and dynamics of the microbial communities inhabiting surfaces of show caves.