Determining the effect of polluted mine water on the ecosystem health of a karstic cave environment in the Witwatersrand Basin
Du Preez, Gerhard Cornelis
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The Wonderfontein Cave is located within the Witwatersrand Basin (Gauteng province, South Africa) and is associated with the river banks of the Wonderfontein Spruit. This cave system has for many years been subjected to the influx of polluted mine water. Since subterranean environments remain poorly studied, it is unknown what the effect of this might be on the associated ecosystem. Furthermore, water that enters the Wonderfontein Cave poses a severe health threat as it drains into the underlying aquifer, which is abstracted for human and animal use. The general aim of this study was to determine the extent of metal pollution (enrichment), as well as to study the toxicity hazard potential of the soils and sediments associated with the Wonderfontein Cave. The objectives of this study were to (1) quantify the extent of anthropogenic metal pollution of water, soils and sediments associated with the Wonderfontein Cave (2) and assessing the toxicity hazard potential of these substrates; (3) determining whether nematode taxa and C. gariepinus individuals represent isolated communities and a population within the Wonderfontein Cave, respectively; (4) measuring the effect of mining-associated pollutants on the soil and sediment health of the Wonderfontein Cave by making use of nematodes to serve as bioindicators; (5) evaluating and comparing biomarker responses to metal bioaccumulation in C. gariepinus populations associated with the Wonderfontein Cave and epigean (surface) environments and lastly (6) comparing the results of the above identified assessments over both a temporal and spatial scale. Sampling was undertaken during April (1st sampling interval) and September (2nd sampling interval) 2013, which respectively represented the end of the high and low flow periods. Also, sampling of the subterranean (Wonderfontein Cave) and associated surface (Wonderfontein Spruit) environments were undertaken. The findings of this study suggested that especially the sediments associated with the Wonderfontein Cave have been subjected to severe nickel, copper, zinc, cobalt, aluminium, cadmium, lead and uranium enrichment. Also, the concentrations of many of the studied metals exceeded the respective water, soil and sediment environmental quality guidelines. Thus, also taking into consideration that most of the sediments were classified as being toxic, a severe threat is posed to the health of the associated biota. Although 60 nematode genera were identified from soil and sediments samples collected from the respective sampling sites associated with the Wonderfontein Cave and Spruit, it was concluded that most of these genera were likely only temporary residents of the subterranean environment. Even though plant-parasitic and nonparasitic nematodes were present, most of the collected soil and sediment samples were dominated by bacterivores (non-parasitic nematodes). Zero genetic divergence was recorded between the C. gariepinus populations associated with the Wonderfontein Cave and Stoffels Dam (Wonderfontein Spruit). However, significant temporal and spatial variation was observed in some bioaccumulated metals and biomarker responses within and between the respective C. gariepinus populations. Furthermore, the metal bioaccumulation levels present in both these fish populations pose a substantial threat to human health and are thus not fit for consumption. Also, no significant fish condition differences were observed between the C. gariepinus populations associated with the Wonderfontein Cave and Spruit. This study served as an initiative to create awareness and promote the conservation of Africa’s karst landscapes.