Estimating forest-grassland dynamics using soil phytolith assemblages and δ13C of soil organic matter

B. K. Kerns, M. M. Moore, S. C. Hart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Our objectives were to examine the ralationship between contemporary vegetation and surface soil phytolith assemblages, and use phytoliths and 813 of soil organic matter (SOM) to explore forest-grassland vegetation dynamics. We established plots within three canopy types (open, old-growth and dense young pine) with different grass species compositions in a Pinus ponderosa forest in northern Arizona and collected vegetation data and surface (0-2 cm) and subsurface (2-7 cm) mineral soil samples. Surface soil phytolith assemblages strongly reflected vegetation at the site scale (within several km2). Local vegetation patterns (< 50 m2) associated with overstory canopy types were weakly detected. Significantly fewer C4 grass and ponderosa pine phytoliths were found in subsurface compared to surface soils. Surface 813C values showed no difference among canopy types. Subsurface 813C values were significantly (+ 0.83 %) more enriched in 13C than surface values. Phytolith assemblages and 813C of SOM reflect long-term accumulation of organic matter in soils and may not mirror contemporary vegetation for many reasons, including spatial shifts in species distribution and productivity. Considering all our phytolith and 813C evidence, we suggest that C4 grasses were more widely distributed but less abundant, grasses were more spatially continuous, total grass productivity was greater, and species in the genus Kneleria and Bromus were more common in the past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)478-488
Number of pages11
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001


  • C
  • C
  • Forest understory
  • Grasslands
  • Non-metric multidimensional scaling
  • Northern Arizona
  • Opal
  • Phytolith assemblages
  • Pinus ponderosa
  • δCC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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