The adaptive strategies of yaks to live in the Asian highlands

Xiaoping Jing, Luming Ding, Jianwei Zhou, Xiaodan Huang, Allan Degen, Ruijun Long

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


The yak (Bos grunniens), an indigenous herbivore raised at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 m above sea level, is closely linked to more than 40 ethnic communities and plays a vital role in the ecological stability, livelihood security, socio-economic development, and ethnic cultural traditions in the Asian highlands. They provide the highlanders with meat, milk, fibres, leather and dung (fuel). They are also used as pack animals to transport goods, for travel and ploughing, and are important in many religious and traditional ceremonies. The Asian highlands are known for an extremely, harsh environment, namely low air temperature and oxygen content and high ultraviolet light and winds. Pasture availability fluctuates greatly, with sparse pasture of poor quality over the long seven-month cold winter. After long-term natural and artificial selections, yaks have adapted excellently to the harsh conditions: 1) by genomics, with positively selected genes involved in hypoxia response and energy metabolism; 2) anatomically, including a short tongue with a weak sense of taste, and large lung and heart; 3) physiologically, by insensitivity to hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction, maintaining foetal haemoglobin throughout life, and low heart rate and heat production in the cold season; 4) behaviourlly, by efficient grazing and selecting forbs with high nutritional contents; 5) by low nitrogen and energy requirements for maintenance and low methane emission and nitrogen excretion, namely, ‘Low-Carbon’ and ‘Nitrogen-Saving’ traits; 6) by harboring unique rumen microbiota with a distinct maturation pattern, that has co-evolved with host metabolism. This review aims to provide an overview of the comprehensive adaptive strategies of the yak to the severe conditions of the highlands. A better understanding of these strategies that yaks employ to adapt to the harsh environment could be used in improving their production, breeding and management, and gaining benefits in ecosystem service and a more resilient livelihood to climate change in the Asian highlands.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-258
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Nutrition
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2022


  • Adaptive strategy
  • Gastrointestinal microbiome
  • Grazing behaviour
  • Nutrient metabolism
  • Yak

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Animals
  • Animal Science and Zoology


Dive into the research topics of 'The adaptive strategies of yaks to live in the Asian highlands'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this