Spatial distribution and environmental significance of phytoliths in the surface soil of the Xilingol Grassland in Inner Mongolia, China


Reconstruction of grassland ecosystems and their vegetation succession is an important issue in palaeoenvironmental research. Phytoliths and pollen are two common proxies for palaeovegetation reconstruction, and their importance can be evaluated based on investigations of the relationships between modern vegetation and phytolith/pollen assemblages in surface-soil samples. The correlations between phytolith assemblages and environmental variables were analysed based on 34 surface-soil samples from the Xilingol Grassland, Inner Mongolia, North China, and a palynological analysis was carried out on the same samples, enabling a comparison between their sensitivity to vegetation and climate change. The results show that the phytolith assemblages mainly consist of blocky and rondel phytoliths, while other short-cell phytolith types, such as saddle and bilobate types, are scarce. The pollen assemblages were characterised by a high abundance of Artemisia and Amaranthaceae. Canonical correspondence analysis (CCA) indicated that the most important environmental factors affecting the distribution of phytoliths are altitude and latitude, while the mean warmest monthly temperature (MWMT) and altitude were the most significant environmental factors affecting the distribution of the pollen assemblages. CCA of the phytoliths and pollen assemblages separated both samples into two groups: broadleaf forest/scrub and steppe/meadow groups, but it appeared that phytoliths were more sensitive in arid grasslands. This case study could be used as a baseline for interpreting fossil phytolith/pollen assemblages from the grasslands of Inner Mongolia and indicates that multiproxy analysis of the same samples can provide reliable information on palaeovegetation and palaeoclimate reconstruction.

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We appreciate the valuable comments from two anonymous reviewers. We wish to thank the staff of the Hunshandake Sandland Ecological Research Station, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, for providing the samples, Dr. Si-Wei Yu for the vegetation map drawing, and Jia-Sheng Yang for the statistical analysis. We are also grateful for the invitation to contribute to this special issue by the guest-editors Angela Bruch, Dieter Uhl and Torsten Utescher.


The study was supported by the National Undergraduates’ Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Program (201710452030), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 41102017, 31770577 and 41688103), and the National Key Research and Development Project of China (2016YFC0500708).

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. The material collection was performed by Hua Su, the soil material treatment and phytolith analysis were performed by Chong-Xiao Sun and Zhi-Wei Liu, the pollen analysis was performed by Cai-Qing Guo, and the environmental and vegetation information was organised by Feng Qin and Hai-Ming Liu. Ya-Meng Li wrote the first draft of the manuscript, and all the authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All the authors have read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ya-Meng Li.

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This article is a contribution to the special issue “Palaeobotanical contributions in honour of Volker Mosbrugger”

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Sun, CX., Su, H., Guo, CQ. et al. Spatial distribution and environmental significance of phytoliths in the surface soil of the Xilingol Grassland in Inner Mongolia, China. Palaeobio Palaeoenv 101, 245–258 (2021).

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  • Phytolith
  • Pollen
  • Surface soil
  • Grassland
  • Inner Mongolia