Science China Earth Sciences

, Volume 61, Issue 9, pp 1169–1182 | Cite as

Advance of research on modern soil phytolith

  • Changhui Wen
  • Houyuan Lu
  • Xinxin Zuo
  • Yong Ge


Phytolith study is a new branch of micropaleontology with an increasingly important role in geology, archaeology, and plant taxonomy. Phytoliths have several advantages considering their characteristics of small particle size, high production, wide distribution, anti-decomposition, in situ deposition, distinctive morphologies, and element sequestrating capacity. Phytolith assemblages in modern soil have been found to be closely related to modern vegetation types and climate conditions, which forms the basis for the quantitative study of paleoecology, paleoclimate, and bio-geochemical cycles. At present, phytolith studies generally focus on the following four aspects: (1) Morphology: about 260 unduplicated types of phytoliths have been identified in modern soil, of which 110 types are from grasses, 50 types from ferns, woody plants and other angiosperms, whereas the origin plants of the remaining 100 types are still under investigation. (2) Soil phytolith assemblages and vegetation: phytolith assemblages from the topsoil have been used to distinguish surface vegetation types including different forests and grasslands over a typical region. This model has been applied to restore past vegetation conditions and monitor the dynamic evolution of specific vegetation types at different temporal and spatial scales. (3) Soil phytolith assemblages and climate: quantitative and semi-quantitative relationships between phytolith assemblages and a series of climate parameters, such as annual mean temperature, annual mean precipitation and altitude, have been established through mathematical analysis. In this manner, quantitative reconstruction of paleoclimatic parameters has been achieved through the phytolith-climate transfer function model. (4) Soil phytolith and its sequestered elements: in this topic, the content of soil PhytOC (Phytolith-occluded Organic Carbon) and the importance of PhytOC in the bio-geochemical cycle have been the focus. The study of modern soil phytoliths has provided new approaches and many successful cases for solving specific problems in various fields, such as Earth science and archaeology. This study analyzed existing issues in addition to the abovementioned significant progresses, and provides directions for future research on modern soil phytoliths.


Modern soil Phytolith Morphology Paleoenvironment Quantification 


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We are thanks two anonymous reviewers for the detailed and constructive criticisms for this manuscript. We are grateful to Prof. Jianping Zhang for providing several images of phytolith morphology. We also grateful to Can Wang, Xiujia Huan and Keyang He for their helpful discussion. This work was supported by the “Macroevolutionary Processes and Paleoenvironments of Major Historical Biota” of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. XDPB0503), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 41430103 & 41230104), and the National Basic Research Program of China (Grant No. 2015CB953801).

Supplementary material

11430_2017_9220_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (166 kb)
Table S1 Overview of the modern soil phytolith research


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Copyright information

© Science China Press and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Cenozoic Geology and Environment, Institute of Geology and GeophysicsChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.University of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.Center for Excellence in Tibetan Plateau Earth ScienceChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  4. 4.School of Geography ScienceFujian Normal UniversityFuzhouChina
  5. 5.Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and PaleoanthropologyChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  6. 6.CAS Center for Excellence in Life and PaleoenvironmentBeijingChina

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