Ecological Insights from Ancient DNA


Species have been shaped by past environmental conditions. Ancient remnants of species (bones, teeth, coprolites, pollen, shed cells, etc.) with preserved DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) can reveal responses to past environmental changes through genetic information in the form of ancient DNA. Here we review the uses of ancient DNA to gain insights into ecological and evolutionary processes by investigating: (1) how climate has affected population dynamics through time, (2) how species react differently to climate change, (3) what triggers extinction for some species, (4) the detection of genomic adaptation to the environment and (5) how ancient DNA can be used to reconstruct past environmental conditions/habitats. The details that we can glean from past responses to climate change will provide information on how we can expect species to respond to future climate change.

Key Concepts

  • Ancient DNA (aDNA) can be utilised to infer how species reacted to past ecological changes.
  • Populations are dynamic and respond to past climate change in many ways; through population size change, altered distributions and migrations.
  • In combination with environmental data, ancient DNA is helping to elucidate what drove some species to extinction.
  • Species have adapted to past climates. Ancient DNA, primarily through candidate gene searches, has revealed the genes behind these adaptations.
  • Indirect methods of sampling soil for ancient DNA has aided in reconstructing past habitats.
  • Ancient DNA can decipher how species responded to past natural climate change. This information can be used to aid in conservation.

Keywords: ancient DNA; demography; adaptation; climate change; extinction

Figure 1. Bayesian skyline plots (BSPs) of (a) steppe bison (Shapiro et al., ; Drummond et al., ) and (b) southern elephant seal (de Bruyn et al., ). BSPs allow for population trends to be shown in the context of climatic change. The thick (black) line represents the median, and the lighter (grey) represents the confidence limit. Timescale is in years before present (BP), and τ is the generation time. Modified from de Bruyn et al., 2011, and reproduced with permission from Elsevier (2011) © Elsevier.


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Further Reading

Hagelberg E, Hofreiter M and Keyser C (2015) Ancient DNA: the first three decades. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B: Biological Sciences 370 (1660): 20130371.

Hofreiter M, Paijmans JL, Goodchild H, et al. (2015) The future of ancient DNA: technical advances and conceptual shifts. BioEssays 37 (3): 284–293.

Poinar H (2002) DNA chemical instability. In: eLS. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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Brown, Sarah K, and Blois, Jessica L(Feb 2016) Ecological Insights from Ancient DNA. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026352]