Reconstruction of the isotopic history of animal diets by hair segmental analysis

Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom. 2003;17(12):1312-8. doi: 10.1002/rcm.1042.


Carbon and nitrogen isotope signatures (delta(13)C and delta(15)N) of animal tissues provide information about the diet and, hence, the environment in which the animals are living. Hair is particularly useful as it provides a stable archive of temporal (e.g. seasonal) fluctuations in diet isotope composition. It can be sampled easily and with minimal disturbance from living subjects. However, derivation of the temporal record along the hair length may be subject to errors and uncertainties. This study investigates (and suggests means to minimize) several sources of error, including (a) incomplete sampling, (b) sampling during the quiescent (telogen) phase, (c) non-representative sub-sampling, (d) ignorance of hair growth rate, i.e. time-position relationship of isotope signatures, and (e) non-optimal compromise between analytical/procedural precision and effort/cost. Cattle tail switch hair was collected from animals of different breed, sex and age. Hair was washed, sectioned, and 5- or 10-mm-long sections were analyzed for C and N isotope composition. Signatures along paired hairs were similar (r(2) approximately 0.8) and distances between isotopic minima and maxima nearly identical, indicating that a single hair constituted a representative sample and (except for telogen hair) hair growth rate was the same for paired hairs. However, cutting hair, instead of plucking, caused a variable loss of recently grown hair and information. Telogen hair was identified and data loss due to cutting error reduced when more than one hair from the same animal and sampling region was compared to spot and delimit common and missing regions. Similarly, comparison of isotopic profiles from hair collected at different times identified the segment produced during the respective interval and allowed calculation of average hair growth rate, which varied between animals (0.69-1.06 mm d(-1)). Analysis of alternate 10-mm-long sections for two hairs per animal provided a good compromise between precision/resolution and effort. The method should be applicable to other mammalian species including man.

MeSH terms

  • Aging
  • Animal Feed
  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic
  • Carbon Isotopes / analysis
  • Carbon Isotopes / metabolism
  • Cattle
  • Diet*
  • Female
  • Hair / chemistry*
  • Hair / growth & development
  • Male
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / metabolism
  • Seasons
  • Time Factors


  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Nitrogen Isotopes