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Stalactite Definition

A stalactite is an elongated structure of minerals formed and hanging from the ceilings of caves, hot springs, or man-made structures such as bridges and mines. They are deposited from a solution of minerals in the water, slowly dripping from the ceilings. Stalactites are formed by materials that are soluble and can be deposited as colloids, or in suspension and have the capacity to be melted. The stalactite can be made up of lava, minerals, mud, peat, pitch, sand, sinter, and amberat (crystallized urine of packrats). The most abundant forms of stalactites are found in limestone caves just because of sheer numbers. Thus, one may find most stalactites in stalactite and stalagmite caves.


Stalactite and Stalagmite Caves

The stalactite’s meaning is clear from the stalactite definition given above. Similar to the stalactite the corresponding formation on the floor is known as a stalagmite. Therefore, the stalagmite meaning can be very crudely stated as an inverted stalactite. Thus, there are high chances for the stalagmite stalactite pair to be present where there are a ceiling and a base below on the ground. For example in the stalactite and stalagmite caves, the dripping mineral solution forms elongated structures from the ceiling and as it gets collected on the ground it forms the same elongated structures as if originating from below. It is not necessary that a stalagmite stalactite complementary pair will exist. There are several cases where an individual stalactite cave or stalagmite cave can exist. Many such formations are also found in caves in an underwater body. Some of the on-ground caves can be stalactite and stalagmite caves with a stalagmite stalactite pair. In such cases, there is a possibility that over long durations the growth of both the stalactite and the stalagmite will eventually fuse into one forming a columnar pillar. But this might not be the case, where there are bridges over seas and other deep water bodies. 


From the ceiling of a cave, the hanging stalactite is commonly found to be tube-shaped the diameter of which is the diameter of the water-drop hanging from a tube in the ceiling. Thus, in absence of air currents, the simplest stalactite form corresponds to a thin-walled stone straw which is very fragile and grows to lengths of 0.5 m. The more common form of a stalactite is a downward tapering cone which is simply a thickening of the straw type by mineral deposition. Stalagmites on the other hand are thicker proportions on the bottom of a cave from the same drip-water source in the ceiling that can also form a stalactite. 


Formation of Stalactite

Stalactite meaning and stalagmite meaning are now clear from the above definitions. Focusing on the formation of a stalactite and stalactite cave or stalagmite and stalactite caves, there are four conditions that favour the deposition of the minerals and formation of the stalactite which are:

  1. a source of rock above a cave or a cavern,

  2. percolation of water downward, supplied from rain or any other source such as moisture in the wind,

  3. a very well regulated, tight but continuous flow of the solution of the mineral and water for determining slow-drip, and

  4. proper hollow air space to provide for either evaporation or escape of carbon dioxide from the water, thus, in turn, losing the solvent ability.

There are various types of stalactites identified on the basis of their location and the materials that it is composed of. The most common type of stalactites is the ones formed by the deposition of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate) found in the abundant caves of limestone and dolomite. Other types of stalactites include, lava stalactites, ice stalactites, and concrete stalactites.


Limestone Stalactite: 

They are formed by continuous deposition of calcium carbonate and other minerals precipitated from their solutions in water. Limestone, a chief form of such stalactites, is dissolved in water containing carbon dioxide and forms calcium bicarbonate solution in the caverns. This solution then travels through the rock downward and when it reaches an edge on the roof of a cave it starts to drip. As it comes in contact with air, the chemical reaction gets reversed and the particles get deposited on the downward surface ceiling. 


All of the limestone stalactites start with a single mineral-laden drop of water. As the drop falls, a thin ring of calcite remains deposited. Each drop that follows the formation and falls deposits another calcite ring. The typical characteristics of such stalactites are that they are very narrow, hollow, and tubular which is commonly known as “soda straw” stalactite.


Lava Stalactite: 

These types of stalactites are formed in lava tubes with the active lava flowing through the tubes of the stalactites. The difference of this type of stalactite is that it forms within hours, days, or weeks as compared to the very slow growth of limestone stalactite. 


Ice Stalactite: 

Commonly known as the icicles these stalactites are found in specific seasons. Water seeping through the surface will pass through into a cave and as temperatures are below the freezing point of water, they will form stalactites. Freezing of water vapour also leads to the creation of such formations. 


Concrete Stalactite: 

These are formed when there is a leak in the plumbing or concrete surface, where the water containing calcium, magnesium, and other ions pass through the leak. It is also formed faster than the natural cave environments even though the components of the solutions might be similar. 


Stalactite Pictures

Given below are some of the images of the stalactites of different types and molding of different formations:

  • Image showing most common types of cave formations including stalactite et stalagmite:

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  • Stalactites and stalagmites are known to form pillars when deposition continues for a very long period of time. The pillars in the caves of Nerja, Spain are one such example as can be seen below:

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  • Shark tooth stalactites formed out of lava is another interesting feature displaying a cave formation matching word to word with stalactite meaning.

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  • Ice stalactites on a frozen beach in Michigan are shown below:

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What are Stalactites Made of?

Ans: Stalactites are cave formations that are formed by water-droplets dripping from the ceiling of the caves. The water contains many different types of minerals in soluble form. Thus, due to this, the stalactites are composed of lava, minerals, mud, peat, pitch, sand, and amberat (crystallized urine of packrats). Even though it is not necessarily only a cave formation, stalactites are found abundantly in caves of limestone because they are widespread all over the world. 

2. Is Stalactite a Rock?

Ans: A stalactite is not necessarily a rock, but a rock formation found hanging on the ceilings of caves which can be found inside or beneath the rocks. They are formed by mineralized water solutions flowing through the rocks and when they reach the edge of the surface, usually a ceiling, they react with the droplet, activating a chemical reaction and forming thin tube life formation by mineral deposition over time. 

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