The Use of Herbage N-alkanes as Markers to Estimate the Diet Composition of Yaks on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau

  • Ding, L.M. (Key Laboratory of Arid and Grassland Ecology, Ministry of Education, School of Life Sciences, Lanzhou University,International Centre for Tibetan Plateau Ecosystem Management, Lanzhou University) ;
  • Long, Ruijun (International Centre for Tibetan Plateau Ecosystem Management, Lanzhou University,College of Pastoral Agriculture Science and Technology, Lanzhou University)
  • Received : 2009.04.27
  • Accepted : 2009.07.22
  • Published : 2010.01.01


The chemical components in plant cuticular wax can be used as markers to estimate the species composition of the diet of grazing animals. In this experiment, composition of the diet of yak on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau was estimated using n-alkane analysis. During the grazing period, samples of whole plants of the species present, plus fecal samples voided by the yak, were collected, air-dried and ground prior to the extraction of cuticular wax n-alkanes. The species composition of the yak diets was estimated by relating fecal alkane contents to those of the plant species, using the 'ATWHAT'software package. The results showed that the n-alkane technique can detect the main dietary components selected by yak. The diet consumed by yak contained 33% Kobresia humilis, 67% Stipa aliena in summer pasture; 26% Potentilla anserine, 74% Carex qinghaiensis in autumn pasture; 52% Carex qinghaiensis, 32% Heteropappus bowerii and 16% Saussurea semifasciata in winter pasture and 5% Carex qinghaiensis, 95% Achnatherum splendens in spring pasture. The apparent selection for forbs is likely to be a reason for nutritional constraint of yak inhabiting alpine environments.


  1. Dove, H. and R. W. Mayes. 1991. The use of plant wax alkanes as marker substances in studies of the nutrition of herbivores: a review. Aust. J. Agric. Res. 42:913-952
  2. Dove, H. and A. D. Moore. 1995. Using a least-squares optimisation procedure to estimate botanical composition based on the alkanes of plant cuticular wax. Aust. J. Agric. Res. 46:1535-1544
  3. Fonseca, M. 1998. Plasticity of mating behaviour in red deer (Cervus elaphus) in a Mediterranean environment. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of London, London
  4. Hodgson, J. 1986. Grazing behaviour and herbage intake. In: Grazing (Ed. J. Frame). Occasional Symposium No. 19. Br. Grassland Soc. 51-54
  5. Kelman, W., M. Bugalho and H. Dove. 2003. Cuticular wax alkanes and alcohols used as markers to estimate diet composition of sheep (Ovis aries). Biochem. Syst. Ecol. 31: 919-927
  6. Bugahho, M. N. 1999. The foraging behaviour of red deer in a mediterranean environment. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen
  7. Duncan, A. J., R. W. Mayes, C. S. Lamb, S. A. Young and I. Castillo. 1999. The use of naturally occurring and artificially applied n-alkanes as markers for estimation of short-term diet composition and intake in sheep. J. Agric. Sci. Cambridge, 132:233-246
  8. Ru, Y. J., J. A. Kruk, M. Fischer, M. Choct and P. C. Glatz. 2002. Predicting n-alkane concentration in pastures and deer facces for dietary composition and digestibility measurement using near infrared spectroscopy. Asian-Aust. J. Anim. Sci. 15:1611-1614
  9. Bugahho, M. N., R. W. Mayes and A. Milne. 2002. The effects of feeding selectivity on the estimation of diet composition using the n-alkane technique. Grass Forage Sci. 57:224-231
  10. Valiente, O. L., P. Delgado, A. de Vega and J. A. Guada. 2003. Validation of the n-alkane technique to estimate intake, digestibility, and diet composition in sheep consuming mixed grain: roughage diets. Aust. J. Agric. Res. 54:693-702
  11. Premaratne, S., J. P. Fontenot and R. K. Sharnklin. 2005. Use of nalkane to estimate intake and digestibility by beef steers. Asian-Aust. J. Anim. Sci. 18:1564-1568
  12. Dove, H. and R. W. Mayes. 2006. Protocol for the analysis of nalkanes and other plant-wax compounds and for their use as markers for quantifying the nutrient supply of large mammalian herbivores. Nat. Protoc. 1:1680-1
  13. Dove, H. and R. W. Mayes. 1996. Plant wax components: a new approach to estimating intake and diet composition in herbivores. J. Nutr. 126:13-26

Cited by

  1. The effects of three years of fencing enclosure on soil seed banks and the relationship with above-ground vegetation of degraded alpine grasslands of the Tibetan plateau vol.364, pp.1-2, 2013,
  2. Use of n-alkanes for determination of Kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum) intake in free-range broilers vol.56, pp.7, 2016,
  3. ), a browsing herbivore vol.96, pp.6, 2018,