Phytoliths in Paleoecology: Analytical Considerations, Current Use, and Future Directions

  • Caroline A. E. StrömbergEmail author
  • Regan E. Dunn
  • Camilla Crifò
  • Elisha B. Harris
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology book series (VERT)


Phytoliths, microscopic plant silica bodies, are often preserved in modern and fossil soils and sediment, as well as in archaeological contexts. They record unique characteristics of past vegetation and, unlike palynomorphs and macrofossils, are commonly found in direct association with fossil vertebrates, providing vital paleoecological data. Within pre-Quaternary paleoecology, phytolith analysis has so far elucidated Cretaceous-Cenozoic grass evolution, vegetation change including the spread of grasslands, plant-animal co-evolution, and diets of extinct animals. Because deep-time phytolith analysis is a young field, many methodological aspects are not standardized, preventing comparisons among studies and calibration using published modern analogs. On the other hand, the plethora of novel approaches in recent literature points to the potential of phytolith-based paleoecology. Here, we review the present state of phytolith analysis, focusing on pre-Quaternary applications. We discuss the nature and known biases of the phytolith record, current methods, and examples of when phytoliths contributed substantially to knowledge of past ecosystems, and highlight important future avenues of research.


Phytolith Paleoecology 



We thank Z. Song, D. Conley, and W. Clymans for fruitful discussions about silica in soil. This work was in part supported by the Biology Department, University of Washington, Seattle, and NSF awards EAR-1253713 and EAR-1349530 to C.A.E.S.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Caroline A. E. Strömberg
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Regan E. Dunn
    • 3
    • 4
  • Camilla Crifò
    • 1
    • 2
  • Elisha B. Harris
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Burke Museum of Natural History & Culture, University of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  3. 3.Department of BotanyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA
  4. 4.Integrative Research CenterField Museum of Natural HistoryChicagoUSA

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