Leaf wax n-alkane distributions in and across modern plants: Implications for paleoecology and chemotaxonomy

Rosemary T. Bush*, Francesca A. McInerney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

461 Scopus citations


Long chain (C21 to C37) n-alkanes are among the most long-lived and widely utilized terrestrial plant biomarkers. Dozens of studies have examined the range and variation of n-alkane chain-length abundances in modern plants from around the world, and n-alkane distributions have been used for a variety of purposes in paleoclimatology and paleoecology as well as chemotaxonomy. However, most of the paleoecological applications of n-alkane distributions have been based on a narrow set of modern data that cannot address intra- and inter-plant variability. Here, we present the results of a study using trees from near Chicago, IL, USA, as well as a meta-analysis of published data on modern plant n-alkane distributions. First, we test the conformity of n-alkane distributions in mature leaves across the canopy of 38 individual plants from 24 species as well as across a single growing season and find no significant differences for either canopy position or time of leaf collection. Second, we compile 2093 observations from 86 sources, including the new data here, to examine the generalities of n-alkane parameters such as carbon preference index (CPI), average chain length (ACL), and chain-length ratios for different plant groups. We show that angiosperms generally produce more n-alkanes than do gymnosperms, supporting previous observations, and furthermore that CPI values show such variation in modern plants that it is prudent to discard the use of CPI as a quantitative indicator of n-alkane degradation in sediments. We also test the hypotheses that certain n-alkane chain lengths predominate in and therefore can be representative of particular plant groups, namely, C23 and C25 in Sphagnum mosses, C27 and C29 in woody plants, and C31 in graminoids (grasses). We find that chain-length distributions are highly variable within plant groups, such that chemotaxonomic distinctions between grasses and woody plants are difficult to make based on n-alkane abundances. In contrast, Sphagnum mosses are marked by their predominance of C23 and C25, chain lengths which are largely absent in terrestrial vascular plants. The results here support the use of C23 as a robust proxy for Sphagnum mosses in paleoecological studies, but not the use of C27, C29, and C31 to separate graminoids and woody plants from one another, as both groups produce highly variable but significant amounts of all three chain lengths. In Africa, C33 and C35 chain lengths appear to distinguish graminoids from some woody plants, but this may be a reflection of the differences in rainforest and savanna environments. Indeed, variation in the abundances of long n-alkane chain lengths may be responding in part to local environmental conditions, and this calls for a more directed examination of the effects of temperature and aridity on plant n-alkane distributions in natural environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)161-179
Number of pages19
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Sep 5 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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