The development and application of selective staining methods for routine detection of mast cells are of considerable interest, because these cells play an important role in health and disease. The composition of cytoplasmic mast cell granules depends on the species and type of mast cell. The study reported here was conducted to investigate the combined use of aldehyde fuchsin (AF) and the Alcian blue-critical electrolyte concentration (AB-CEC) (pH 5.8, 0.3 M MgCl(2)) techniques for differentiating avian mast cell subtypes. Tissue samples from skin, intestines, and lungs of six healthy adult quail and two control rats were fixed in Carnoy's solution and 10% formolin for routine histological processing. To determine the staining properties of sulfated glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), a three-step staining technique was applied using berberine sulfate, AF, and AB-CEC. In quail, AF positivity following application of the AB-CEC technique was found only in the lungs, mostly in cells that gave a berberine sulfate-positive reaction, and this positivity was determined to be localized particularly in the nucleus and perinuclear cytoplasm. In other regions, the pale AF staining of cells that did not emit fluorescence when stained with berberine sulfate was determined to be replaced by a blue color after application of AB-CEC. The AF/AB-CEC (pH 5.8, 0.3 M MgCl(2)) technique demonstrated that rat and quail mast cells varied in both GAG types and their distribution within the cell. Especially in avian species, this technique can be applied to distinguish mast cells according to their GAG content. It can be used as an alternative to the AB/safranin O staining procedure for differentiating mast cells that contain and lack heparin.