Challenges and molecular solutions for the taxonomic identification of ancient cetaceans

Speller, C., Hurk, Y. van den, Charpentier, A., Rodrigues, A., Gardeisen, A., Wilkens, B., McGrath, K., Rowsell, K., Spindler, L., Collins, M. & Hofreiter, M. (2016). Barcoding the largest animals on Earth: ongoing challenges and molecular solutions in the taxonomic identification of ancient cetaceans. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 371, 20150332.

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Over the last few centuries, many cetacean species have witnessed dramatic global declines due to industrial overharvesting and other anthropogenic influences, and thus are a key target for conservation. Whale bones recovered from archaeological and paleontological contexts can provide essential baseline information on the past geographic distribution and abundance of species required for developing informed conservation policies. Here we review the challenges with identifying whale bones through traditional anatomical methods, as well as the opportunities provided by new molecular analyses. Through a case study focused on the North Sea, we demonstrate how the utility of this (pre)historic data is currently limited by a lack of accurate taxonomic information for the majority of ancient cetacean remains. We discuss current opportunities presented by molecular identification methods such as DNA barcoding and collagen peptide mass fingerprinting (ZooMS), and highlight the importance of molecular identifications in assessing ancient species distributions through a case study focused on the Mediterranean. Due to the large proportion of unidentified archaeozoological cetacean remains worldwide, we conclude by considering high-throughput molecular approaches such as hybridisation capture followed by next-generation-sequencing as cost-effective approaches for enhancing the ecological informativeness of these ancient sample sets.