Combining environmental history and soil phytolith analysis at the City of Rocks National Reserve: Developing new methods in historical ecology
Historical ecology is an emerging and interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain the changes in ecosystems over time through a synthesis of information derived from human records and biological data. The methods in historical ecology cover a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. However, methods for the more recent past (about 200 years) are largely limited to the human archive and dendrochronological evidence which can be subject to human bias, limited in spatial extent or not appropriate for non-forested systems. There is a need to explore new methods by which biological data can be used to understand historic vegetation and disturbance regimes over the recent past especially in arid ecosystem types. Soil phytolith analysis has the potential to provide much needed information regarding historical conditions in both areas. Phytoliths are structures formed in plants through deposition and accumulation of silica within and around cell walls that are released from plants and preserved in sediments long after death and decay of plant material. The City of Rocks National Reserve in southern Idaho was an excellent place to develop new methods in historical ecology because the human records of historic environmental conditions were so rich. There were two overarching and interconnected objectives for this dissertation research. The first was to reconstruct an ecological history of the City of Rocks National Reserve from the period of overland emigration to present. The second objective was to explore the utility of soil phytolith analysis for inferring vegetation and disturbance regime change over the recent past by testing its sensitivity to record known changes. I employed modern analogue studies, a multi-core approach and detailed core analysis to test for known changes through analysis of extraction weights, relative abundance of phytolith assemblages, microscopic charcoal and burned (darkened) phytoliths. My results showed that this combination of history and soil phytolith analysis would be a useful approach for inferring vegetation changes (e.g. increases in introduced grasses) and disturbances (e.g. fire) in ecological histories.
School:Utah State University
School Location:USA - Utah
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:historical ecology phytoliths environmental history city of rocks national reserve fire dry farming
Date of Publication:12/01/2008